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Tunisia President vows new war on corruption after seizing control

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FETHI BELAID/AFP or licensors

Kaïs Saïed

President Kais Saied, who assumed all executive powers after suspending parliament Tunisia, has launched an anti-corruption offensive, calling to account 460 businessmen accused of embezzling funds during the Ben Ali era.

Three days after suspending the activity of the Parliament for a month and taking over the entire executive power, the head of state has blasted the "bad economic choices" made in recent years in Tunisia, during a meeting Wednesday evening with the president of the employers' association (Utica).

Mr. Saied, who has not yet named the Prime Minister, attacked "those who plunder public money. They are "460" to owe "13.5 billion dinars" (4 billion euros) to the state, he recalled, citing an old report of a commission of inquiry on corruption and embezzlement under the former regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

"This money must return to the Tunisian people," said the president. For this, he intends to offer these businessmen a judicial settlement. In exchange for the abandonment of the proceedings, the sums refunded would benefit the less developed regions of Tunisia.

Faced with continued inflation that undermines the purchasing power of Tunisians, Mr. Saied also asked traders and wholesalers to "lower prices.

He also called for a revival of phosphate production, one of the few natural resources of the country. Former flagship of the Tunisian economy, the Gafsa Phosphate Company (CPG) has seen its production collapse since the 2011 revolution, due to a lack of investment and repeated social unrest.

Mr. Saied wants "phosphate to return to its past activity," and implicitly highlighted the suspicions of corruption that surround this industry, referring to "people in the Parliament who protect themselves with parliamentary immunity.

At the same time, the president announced the establishment of a crisis unit to manage the Covid-19 pandemic, supervised by a senior military officer.

Already hit by unemployment and inflation, Tunisia is facing a new epidemic peak that has provoked the anger of the population in recent weeks. The small North African country of about 12 million people has one of the worst official death rates in the world, with 19,000 deaths linked to the new coronavirus.

After months of political crisis, President Saied, whose prerogatives are normally limited to diplomacy and security, seized power on Sunday by invoking the constitution. A decision denounced as a "coup d'état" by his main opponent, the Islamist-inspired party Ennahdha.