Karoui's arrest likely to affect parliamentary coalition

The arrest has received wide-ranging attention in Tunisia considering its possible impact on the high-profile fight against corruption, its value as a test case for the independence of the Tunisian justice system and Karoui’s parliamentary alliances.
Thursday 24/12/2020
Tunisian politician media executive Nabil Karoui, speaks with journalists in Tunis, Tunisia, Oct. 10, 2019. (AP)
Tunisian politician media executive Nabil Karoui, speaks with journalists in Tunis, Tunisia, Oct. 10, 2019. (AP)

TUNIS--A judge ordered the detention of Tunisian media executive and former presidential candidate Nabil Karoui on Thursday on suspicion of financial corruption, a spokesman for the judicial court said Thursday.

The arrest has received wide-ranging attention in Tunisia considering its possible impact on the high-profile fight against corruption, its value as a test case for the independence of the Tunisian justice system and Karoui’s parliamentary alliances.

Karoui is the leader of the Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia) political party, the second-largest party in parliament and an ally of the Islamist Ennahda party. His party is one of three that support the technocratic government in parliament.

Tunisia’s state news agency TAP reported Karoui was to face charges of “tax evasion and money laundering.”

Karoui was first arrested in August 2019 but released a few months later on October 9 in the middle of a presidential election, though investigations into his case continued.

Last year, Karoui said he was confident of his innocence and that his political opponents, specifically Ennahda, were behind his imprisonment.

Now, however, Karoui is Ennahda’s main ally in parliament, with his party accused of using its political weight and means to shield him from accountability.

Analysts say that the move against Karoui could be the start of a broader campaign targeting figures suspected of corruption.

Karoui’s arrest comes less than 24 hours after Tunisian Interior Minister Taoufik Charfeddine met with President Kais Saied, who stressed the need to “apply the law on all and without exception.”

Ditched by Islamist allies?

Some observers believe Ennahda may have ditched Karoui while keeping the alliance with his party to fend off criticism and accusations it has been protecting “corrupt figures” for the sake of political expediency.

Karoui’s arrest has shown Ennahda’s parliamentary alliances to be tenuous. Holding support from the ultra-conservative Karama coalition and Qalb Tounes does not offer the Islamist party any reliable backing as it grows increasingly isolated on the political scene.

Karoui has long been dogged by allegations of corruption, while many of Karama’s members are viewed as radicals with thinly-veiled sympathies to extremists.

Ennahda itself previously distanced its political project from the two parties in an effort to dodge accusations of normalising corruption and extremism.

In October last year, Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi described the elections as a choice between revolutionaries, such as Ennahda, and “parties of corruption,” a reference to Karoui’s Qalb Tounes.

Leaked documents at the time appeared to show that Karoui paid some $1 million to a Canadian consulting firm leading up to the election, a serious breach of electoral finance rules.

Ghannouchi also distanced Ennahda from the Karama coalition, hinting that the two political parties, though both conservative, have different agendas and positions.

This came after revelations of close links between Karama’s leader, lawyer Seifeddine Makhlouf, and alleged terrorist returnees from conflict zones.

An electoral poster of then-Tunisian presidential candidate Nabil Karoui along a road in the capital Tunis on October 9, 2019. (AFP)
An electoral poster of then-Tunisian presidential candidate Nabil Karoui along a road in the capital Tunis on October 9, 2019. (AFP)

Now left with only these two so-called political allies, Ennahda has lent itself to accusations of political opportunism even from within the party itself. Critics of the Islamist party says the interests and calculations of its leaders, particularly Ghannouchi, are the determining factors in its political alliances.

Criticism has poured in from the media, political figures and the public over Ennahda’s dealings with businessmen and other figures suspected of corruption, and its alleged backing of foreign agendas, particularly the regional plans of the Qatari-Turkish axis.

Reactions to Karoui’s arrest

The first reactions to the arrest of Karoui are beginning to emerge. Speaking to local radio, Oussama Khlifi, president of the Qalb Tounes bloc, said Karoui “is now politically targeted.”

“Since the 2019 elections, Nabil Karoui has faced harassment. He was even deprived of his right to an electoral campaign,” he added.

Khlifi predicted that his party’s leader will eventually be cleared by the court.

However, not all politicians agree with Khlifi.

In a Facebook post, Tunisian MP Yassine Ayari mocked the former government of Elyes Fakhfakh and its then-Minister of State to the Prime Minister in charge of Public Service, Governance and Fight against Corruption Mohamed Abbou for their lax attitude towards corruption.

Ayari recalled that Abbou promised to fight against corruption and those involved, including Karoui, only to end up doing nothing under the pretext that Fakhfakh’s government did not last more than three months.

He said that the new government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi has done what is needed to be done in only three months, noting that “Karoui remains innocent until proven guilty.”

Hichem el-Ajbouni, a deputy with the Democratic bloc, said he hoped the judiciary would deal impartially with Karoui’s case.

He added that the judges now have an opportunity to prove that the judiciary is in the process of reforming to establish a strong and equitable state.

“The situation in Tunisia cannot change with the presence of corrupt politicians who control the scene and appoint corrupt officials. Some of these politicians approach power with a logic of plunder, empowerment and extortion,” he said.