Outsider, jailed tycoon top Tunisian presidential vote

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Supporters of detained presidential candidate and Tunisian media mogul Nabil Karoui react after unofficial results of the Tunisian presidential election in Tunis, Tunisia, on September 15, 2019. (REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)
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A soldier stands guard as people queue to cast their vote at a polling station during presidential election in Sousse, Tunisia September 15, 2019. (Reuters)
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Tunisian soldiers stand guard outside a polling station as voters arrive to cast their ballots in Sousse, south of the capital Tunis, on September 15, 2019. (AFP)
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A woman poses after casting her vote outside a polling station during presidential election in Tunis, Tunisia, September 15, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 16 September 2019

Outsider, jailed tycoon top Tunisian presidential vote

  • The premier’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and a high cost of living
  • The election follows an intense campaign beset by personality clashes

TUNIS, Tunisia: A jailed media magnate and an independent outsider appeared likely to face off in Tunisia’s presidential runoff, after a roller coaster first-round race in the country that unleashed the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings.

Official preliminary results are expected in the next couple of days from Sunday’s voting, in which corruption, unemployment and Islamic extremism were among key campaign issues. A second-round vote is expected by Oct. 13, the electoral commission chief said.

An exit poll by agency Sigma Conseil forecast what would be a surprising result: A top showing of 19.5% for independent Rais Saied, a constitutional law professor without a party.

Tycoon Nabil Karoui, jailed since last month on money laundering and tax evasion charges, was predicted to come in second with 15.5%, according to the poll.

Karoui’s supporters quickly declared victory, and his wife Salwa said his legal team is pushing for his release as soon as Monday. She read a letter he wrote from jail in which he said the apparent results reflected “the Tunisian people’s wish to see change, to say no to injustice, no to poverty, no to marginalization and yes to a fair state.”

The polling agency projected the candidate of moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, Abdelfattah Mourou, would come in third, followed by Defense Minister Abdeldrim Zbidi and then Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who had been considered a top contender.

Sigma Conseil said it questioned 38,900 people at 778 of Tunisia’s 4,554 polling stations, spread out over 27 of the country’s 33 regions. It claimed the poll had a margin of error of 1%.

The electoral commission announced that overall turnout was a relatively low 45%. If no candidate wins more than 50% of Sunday’s vote, the election goes to a second round. The exact date of the runoff will be announced once the final first-round results are declared.

Both Saied and Karoui promised to fight unemployment, a key problem in Tunisia that also helped drive its 2011 revolution.

Saied has no political background but notably picked up support among young voters with his straightforward, anti-system image and constitutional law background. Corruption frustrates many voters, which might have increased the appeal of an outsider candidate.

Karoui meanwhile positioned himself as the candidate of the poor, notably using his TV network to raise money for charity. His arrest appears to have mobilized voters in the struggling provinces or those who feel sidelined in the Tunisian economy. Karoui was allowed to remain in the race because he has not been convicted.

The voting followed a noisy but brief campaign — 12 days — marked by backbiting and charges of corruption among the contenders. All vowed to boost the country’s flagging economy and protect it from further deadly attacks by Islamist extremists.

Tunisia is in many ways an exception in the Arab world, with its budding democracy lurching forward despite challenges. Some 6,000 Tunisian and international observers, including from the European Union and the United States, monitored the vote.

More than 100,000 security forces were on guard Sunday as 7 million registered voters were called to the polls. Military surveillance was especially tight in border regions near Algeria and Libya where Islamist extremists are active.

Sunday’s election follows the death in office in July of the nation’s first democratically elected leader, Beji Caid Essebsi. His widow, Chadlia Saida Farhat, died Sunday at age 83, as Tunisians were voting.

This is only the second democratic presidential election that Tunisia has seen since the 2011 popular uprising brought down autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and triggered uprisings across the Arab world.

“The most important thing is that the vote be transparent ... and reflect the choice of voters,” said retired journalist Radhia Ziadi, alluding to the days when Ben Ali won election after election with well over 90% of the votes.

Tunis voter Sonia Juini summed up the overall sentiment as she cast her ballot, expressing hope the new president would make Tunisia more secure and “improve living conditions and take care of marginalized areas.”

Tunisia is also holding its parliamentary election on Oct. 6, another challenge since the new president’s success will depend on having support in parliament.


Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

Updated 15 October 2019

Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

  • Standoff looms in northern Syrian town of Manbij as Turkish offensive continues
  • Trump's fresh sanctions fail to halt Turkish advance

MANBIJ, Syria: Turkey ignored US sanctions and pressed on with its assault on northern Syria on Tuesday, while the Russia-backed Syrian army roared into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by US forces in Donald Trump’s retreat.
Reuters journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered the center of the city of Manbij, a flashpoint where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.
Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles.
US forces announced they had pulled out of the city.
A week after reversing US policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington’s Syrian allies, Trump announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.
But the measures — mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks — were less robust than financial markets had expected, and Trump’s critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.
The Turkish lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher US measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting that Trump had spared Turkish banks.
Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a week ago swiftly upended five years of US policy in the Middle East.
The withdrawal gives a free hand to Washington’s adversaries in the world’s deadliest ongoing war, namely Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
The United States announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Assad’s Russia-backed government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.
Russian-backed Syrian forces moved swiftly to fill the void left by departing Americans from Manbij west of the Euphrates river, which Turkey has vowed to capture.
“We are out of Manbij,” said Col. Myles B Caggins, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Syria. Troops “are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”
A group of journalists accompanied by Syrian army personnel journeyed into Manbij city where upon their arrival a group of people gathered, waving the Syrian flag and pictures of Assad.
However the reporters left when gunfire was heard and a group of some 10 young men in Kurdish YPG uniforms began breaking cameras and yelling.
Syrian state media said SDF fighters had opened fire on a march organized by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.
Trump’s pullout ends joint US-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal aimed to persuade Turkey not to invade.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of what it said was government troops entering Manbij on Tuesday, under their new deal with the Kurds. A resident inside the city told Reuters the Syrian troops were on its outskirts. Turkey-backed Syrian fighters said they would continue their advance toward Manbij.
A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday morning of the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain, where a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reported a fierce battle was taking place.
Trump has defended his reversal of US policy as part of a plan to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East.
But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds, loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground forces in Washington’s battle against Daesh.
The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said Trump’s sanctions were too little, too late.
“His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster.”
Turkey says it aims to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey, and to create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees can be resettled.
The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The Kurdish administration puts the number of displaced at 270,000.
The UN Human Rights office said on Tuesday Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on the side of a highway on Saturday by gunmen who posted the incident on the Internet.
Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.
Erdogan, who has pledged to continue military operations come what may, said Turkey was giving the world a chance to bring peace to the region.
“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union — and the world — should support what Turkey is trying to do.”
The Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory evacuated by Washington are a victory for President Bashar Assad and his most powerful ally, Russia, giving them a foothold in the biggest remaining swath of the country that had been beyond their grasp.
Trump allies insisted Washington had not given its blessing to the Turkish offensive, and demanded a cease-fire.
“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table.”
Trump’s sanctions include reimposing steel tariffs and halting talks on a trade deal. But bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is small — around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to US financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.
“The sanctions are not related to banking, so the markets will have a positive perception,” said Cem Tozge, asset management director at Ata Invest.
In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen said it was postponing a final decision on whether to build a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over “current developments” after international condemnation of the incursion.
European countries have criticized the offensive but have limited their response so far to announcing suspensions of arms sales, although weapons account for only a small fraction of EU-Turkish trade.
Trump said US troops would remain at a small garrison at Tanf in southern Syria “to continue to disrupt remnants” of Daesh. The base on the southern border is hundreds of miles away from the Kurdish area in the north that had previously been the main US theater.