Tunisia prepares for first free municipal elections

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File photo showing Tunisian soldiers at a polling station in Sousse, Tunisia. (Reuters)
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Updated 04 May 2018
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Tunisia prepares for first free municipal elections

TUNIS: Millions of Tunisians head to the polls on Sunday for their first free municipal elections, seen as another milestone on the road to democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.
Yet while the North African country has been lauded for its transition from decades of dictatorship, the post-revolution authorities have struggled to improve living standards and tackle corruption.
Observers expect a high abstention rate in the polls, which come seven years after mass protests toppled the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Tunisians who had high hopes after the revolution have been left demoralized in the face of high inflation, stubborn unemployment and arrangements between political parties which have hindered democratic debate at the national level.
The country was also hit by a wave of protest at the start of the year, over the government’s new austerity budget.
According to observers, the two political heavyweights — the Islamist party Ennahdha and the Nidaa Tounes party led by President Beji Caid Essebsi — are the only ones to have presented lists in all cities, and could win a large proportion of seats.
After being postponed four times, the one-round local elections will begin at 8:00 am (0700 GMT) on Sunday.
Around five million voters are eligible to vote, with about 57,000 candidates standing across 350 municipalities.
The local polls are the first not held under the one-party rule of the regime, noted Michael Ayari, a researcher with the International Crisis Group think tank.
“There have never been free and competitive municipal elections,” he said.
Tunisia is seen as a rare success story of the Arab Spring compared with other countries shaken by uprisings such as Libya and Yemen which are still deep in turmoil.
A new constitution was adopted and legislative and presidential polls held in 2014.
But Tunisia still faces myriad economic, social and security challenges.
The nation remains under a state of emergency imposed after a series of jihadists attacks in 2015 and a 30,000-strong security force is being brought out to secure the elections.

The vote marks the first tangible step toward decentralization, a move written into Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution after regions were marginalized by a hyper-centralized power base under the former regime.
Municipalities had few decision-making powers under the one-party system of Ben Ali, under which cronyism was common.
After his overthrow, cities were managed by special delegations nominated by the government which often failed to satisfy Tunisians.
But at the end of April a code for regional authorities was voted in, which for the first time allows them to freely govern as independent bodies.
“Under Ben Ali, and up until now, for a community to have the power to repaint a school... it had to go through the supervising authority — the ministry of education or health. All of that will disappear,” said Lamine Ben Ghazi from Al Bawsala, which monitors Tunisian political life.
But the signficance of the new powers has failed to gain prominence ahead Sunday’s vote, with a lack of awareness as the legal change came late in the campaign.

An indication for Sunday came with the early voting of police and soldiers at the end of April, with turnout just 12 percent of those registered.
For Youssef Charif, a political analyst, the risk of high absentation is an “enormous problem for the municipal councils, which have already limited rights and would have less legitimacy and therefore more difficultly changing things.”
But there could still be surprises, with the participation of a number of independent lists that could shake up the country’s balance of power.
Ben Ghazi remained hopeful that the elections can give Tunisian politics a new lease of life.
“They will create a new wave of politically engaged women and men,” he said.
The municipal polls will be followed by legislative and presidential votes in 2019.
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‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

Updated 19 June 2019
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‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

  • Tehran regime has fanned sectarian flames in region for four decades, analyst tells Arab News
  • IRGC chief says Iranian missiles capable of hitting "carriers in the sea" with great precision

JEDDAH: Iran “will not wage war against any nation,” President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday — hours after two drones launched by Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen targeted civilians in southern Saudi Arabia.

Rouhani's statement sounded a note of restraint after the United States announced more troop deployments to the Middle East.

“Iran will not wage war against any nation,” he said in a speech broadcast live on state TV. “Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful.”

But he was also contradicted by the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Hossein Salami, who said Iran’s ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

“These missiles can hit, with great precision, carriers in the sea ... they are domestically produced and are difficult to intercept and hit with other missiles,” Salami said.

He said Iran's ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

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Before both men spoke, Saudi air defenses intercepted and shot down two Houthi drones packed with explosives. One targeted a civilian area in the southern city of Abha, and the second was shot down in Yemeni air space. There were no casualties, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said.

Rouhani’s offer to avoid war was “the height of hypocrisy,” the Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News.

“Rouhani is the biggest hypocrite in the world,” he said. “On the one hand, he is saying that Iran does not seek a conflict with anybody, and on the other it is launching attacks through its militias on oil tankers, oil pipelines, civilian airports and holy cities.

“This is nothing but the height of hypocrisy. Who does he think he is fooling with those words? Why are they enriching uranium? Why are they seeking nuclear bombs? What have they done over the past four decades? They have only caused trouble. They have only fanned sectarian flames in the region.”

The Saudi Cabinet, meeting in Jeddah, also condemned the Houthi attacks on Saudi civilians, and last week’s terrorist attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, widely blamed on Iran. 

 

Confrontation fears

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and its long-time foe the United States have mounted since Thursday when two oil tankers were attacked near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane, which Washington blamed on Tehran.

Iran denied involvement in the attacks and said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under a 2015 nuclear deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Exceeding the uranium cap at the heart of the accord would prompt a diplomatic crisis, forcing the other signatories, which include China, Russia and European powers, to confront Iran.

The standoff drew a call for caution from China. Its top diplomat warned that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced US pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of the landmark nuclear deal.

Russia urged restraint on all sides.

On Monday, Iranian officials made several assertive comments about security, including the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who said Tehran was responsible for security in the Gulf and urged US forces to leave the region.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday announced the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

The new US deployment is in addition to a 1,500-troop increase announced last month in response to tanker attacks in May. Washington previously tightened sanctions, ordering all countries and companies to halt imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.


'Nuclear blackmail'

Iran’s announcement on Monday that it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under the deal was denounced by a White House National Security Council spokesman as “nuclear blackmail.”

The move further undermines the nuclear pact, but Rouhani said on Monday the collapse of the deal would not be in the interests of the region or the world.

The nuclear deal seeks to head off any pathway to an Iranian nuclear bomb in return for the removal of most international sanctions.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi said the United States should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran.

Wang told reporters China, a close energy partner of Iran, was “of course, very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and called on all sides to ease tension.

“We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s box,” Wang said.

“In particular, the US side should alter its extreme pressure methods,” Wang said. “Any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law. Not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis.”

Wang also said the Iran nuclear deal was the only feasible way to resolve its nuclear issue, and urged Iran to be prudent.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU would only react to any breach if the International Atomic Energy Agency formally identified one.

The Trump administration says the deal, negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama, was flawed as it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish it for waging proxy wars in other Middle East countries.