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article imageTunisia says no 'power vacuum' despite president's illness

By Caroline Nelly Perrot (AFP)     Jun 28, 2019 in World

Tunisian authorities said Friday that President Beji Caid Essebsi's condition was improving and insisted there was no power vacuum in the North African country, shaken by the 92-year-old leader's hospitalisation and twin suicide attacks.

Essebsi was taken to hospital for a "serious illness" on Thursday, the same day that bombings claimed by the Islamic State group killed a police officer in Tunis and wounded several other people.

Officials sought to calm fears among Tunisians that the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings would descend into new violence and political instability.

"We have a president. There is no constitutional vacancy," one of Essebsi's key advisors, Noureddine Ben Ticha, told the Express FM radio station.

Presidential spokeswoman Saida Garrach said that Essebsi's "state of health is improving".

The president had met with the defence minister early on Friday morning and should leave hospital "soon", she told state radio, without giving further details.

Tunisians were back on the streets of the capital a day after twin suicide bombings claimed by the I...
Tunisians were back on the streets of the capital a day after twin suicide bombings claimed by the Islamic State group

On Thursday several media outlets had reported Essebsi's death after the presidency announced that one of the world's oldest heads of state -- behind only Britain's 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth II -- was taken to hospital.

But those claims were denied by the authorities.

Key adviser Firas Guefrech said the president was in a "critical" but "stable" condition, while the leader's son Hafedh Caid Essebsi said his father's condition was starting to improve.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed visited the ailing leader and said he was receiving "the necessary care", warning people not to spread "false and confusing information".

- 'Difficult times' -

On the streets of Tunis the mood was hopeful but cautious.

"I hope he will return to the (presidential) palace in good health quickly because his absence in such difficult times will plunge the country into chaos," said Ibrahim Chaouachi, 40, echoing many of his compatriots.

Tunisia's constitution, adopted three years after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, provides two measures in the case of a power vacuum.

Tunisia  the cradle of Arab Spring uprisings  has been hit by repeated Islamist attacks since the 20...
Tunisia, the cradle of Arab Spring uprisings, has been hit by repeated Islamist attacks since the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

The prime minister can take over the president's responsibilities for a period of no more than 60 days.

If the vacancy is longer, the speaker of parliament is tasked with the role for up to 90 days.

In both cases, the decision must be taken by a constitutional court after it validates the president's incapacity.

But eight years after the Arab Spring, Tunisia has yet to set up a constitutional court.

The country's first democratically elected president, Essebsi came to power in 2014.

His prolonged absence from the public eye could spell uncertainty for Tunisia, where democracy remains fragile especially ahead of presidential and legislative elections, scheduled for October and November.

- 'Terrorists want to scare us' -

Tunisia suicide attack
Tunisia suicide attack

Essebsi's health scare came as Tunisia was hit by the latest in a string of deadly jihadist attacks since the 2011 uprising.

Thursday's blasts -- one on the central Habib Bourguiba avenue and another against a security base -- killed a police officer and wounded at least eight people including several civilians.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility.

The policeman was buried on Friday in Sidi Hassin, a working class district in the capital's suburbs, where a crowd of mourners came to pay their respects.

"He will be quickly forgotten by the authorities and his family will not receive any compensation, not even his salary", said a fellow officer, saying even his funeral expenses had been covered by donations.

Chahed denounced the latest bombings as "cowardly" acts intended to "destabilise Tunisians, the economy and democratic transition".

Heavy security was deployed Friday around Habib Bourguiba avenue and the nearby interior ministry, while shops that had closed after the bombings reopened for business.

"The terrorists want to scare us but we say NO," said Rached Mamlouk, a bookshop attendant, as people walked the streets outside and tourist buses lay parked nearby.

Tourists canvassed by AFP in Tunis on Friday were calm despite the attacks.

"It is very sad, but it could happen anywhere," said Ulrika Berg, a Swede staying at hotel in the capital's medina.

Ghilain, a French tourist, was similarly undeterred.

"Today, we have the impression that nothing happened, other than there being a slightly bigger military presence, but that's normal."

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