Tunisian president mired in UN row over Trump peace plan

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Tunisian President Kais Saied is under fire for firing his country's ambassador to the UN over US President Trump's controversial Middle East peace plan. (AFP file photo)
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Tunisians hold anti-Israel posters outside the Tunisian Tourism Ministry in Tunis on Dec.8, 2018. (AP file photo)
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Updated 13 February 2020

Tunisian president mired in UN row over Trump peace plan

  • in a sudden twist, Tunisian President Kais Saied fired his country's UN envoy Moncef Baati
  • The ambassador had earlier issued strongly worded condemnation of the peace plan

TUNIS: Tunisian President Kais Saied’s first major foray into international affairs appears to have backfired, with his diplomatic strategy called into question over the dismissal of Tunis’ UN envoy.
Saied, a 61-year-old constitutional law expert with no previous political experience, swept to victory on October 13 last year.
He draped himself in a Palestinian flag on the night of his election and has refused a “normalization” of ties with the Jewish state, repeating strongly anti-Israel positions.
But in a sudden twist, Tunisia fired UN envoy Moncef Baati last Friday, accusing him of failing to consult the foreign ministry and other Arab countries on a strongly-worded condemnation of Washington’s controversial Middle East peace plan.
“The manner in which the dismissal was carried out raises many questions around the diplomatic strategy of the presidency” and whether the move had been thought through, political commentator Youssef Cherif said.
Diplomatic sources said Baati had gone further than Saied had wanted in his criticism of US President Donald Trump’s plan, unveiled on January 28 and seen as heavily favoring Israel.
In the week before Baati was fired, Saied had called Trump’s proposal the “injustice of the century and high treason” during an interview broadcast on national television.
Tunisians took to the streets in protest against the plan in the capital Tunis and the eastern city of Sfax.
The Baati affair has caused concern about Saied’s diplomatic acumen and has sent mixed signals about his approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, just as Tunisia took up a two-year seat on the UN Security Council in January, where it is the only Arab state represented.
Earlier this week, the Palestinians abandoned their request for a Security Council vote on the Middle East peace plan that they hoped would see the US proposal rejected.
The US had placed “very strong pressure” on other countries on the council, including threats of economic retribution, not to support the Palestinians’ request, according to one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Media reports also chalked up Baati’s removal to US pressure, but the presidency denied it had bowed to any duress, instead accusing the envoy of seeking to “tarnish the image of Tunisia and its president.”
Diplomats and observers shared apprehensions over the president’s diplomatic strategy, particularly at a time when Tunisia must also grapple with the conflict in neighboring Libya.
Ezzedine Zayani, a former ambassador, said the affair “undermines the credibility” of all the country’s diplomatic efforts.
Arabic daily El Chourouk wrote on Wednesday that “the issue raises concerns about a possible slip in Tunisian diplomacy.”
The role of the presidency in Tunisia focuses on security and diplomacy, but Saied has appeared to avoid international summits since taking office.
He declined a “late” invitation to a meeting on the Libya crisis in Berlin in January and said he was ill during an African Union summit in Addis Ababa over the weekend. His only official foreign visit has been to neighboring Algeria.
French-language daily Le Temps decried “double-headed diplomacy” as adding to the confusion, noting Wednesday that Islamist Ennahdha party leader and parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi has been meeting with foreign officials in Tunisia and abroad.
Baati was nominated not long before Saied came to power by an executive that had furthered a fairly conciliatory diplomacy on the Israel-Palestinian issue.
His swift recall meant he missed a closed-door briefing of the Security Council by the US plan’s architect, Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. It was several days before he was replaced by his deputy, Tarek el Adab.
Commentator Cherif observed that while Saied would certainly have come under pressure to dismiss Baati, the move was consistent with the president’s policy of changing officials from the previous mandate.
Saied has still not named a fully-fledged successor to former foreign minister Khemaies Jhinaoui, whom he fired not long after his election.
“Tunisia has no new government, no foreign minister. If they start dismissing key ambassadors, it adds to the void,” Cherif said.


Coronavirus: 16 killed in Iran, 95 infected

Workers disinfect Qom’s Masumeh shrine, which is visited by a large number of people, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (AFP)
Updated 26 February 2020

Coronavirus: 16 killed in Iran, 95 infected

  • Six Saudi women recovering in Bahrain as Kingdom warns against travel to Italy and Japan

DUBAI: Two more people infected with the new coronavirus have died, taking the toll in Iran to 16, a Health Ministry official told state TV on Tuesday.

Iran has the highest number of deaths from coronavirus outside China, where the virus emerged late last year.
“Among those who had been suspected of the virus, 35 have been confirmed and two died of the coronavirus infection,” said Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour. He said 95 people had been infected across Iran.
The Health Ministry urged Iranians to stay at home.
Iran said on Monday 900 cases were suspected, dismissing claims by a lawmaker from Qom who said 50 people had died in the city, the epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak.
Iran, which confirmed its first two deaths last week in Qom, has yet to say how many people it has quarantined, but the semi-official Mehr news agency said 320 people had been hospitalized.
Iraj Harirchi, Iran’s deputy health minister, has tested positive for the coronavirus and is now under quarantine.
Six Arab countries have reported their first cases of coronavirus, with those infected all having links to Iran. Kuwait said the number of infected people there had risen to eight.
Bahrain’s Health Ministry said 15 more people, including six Saudi women, had tested positive for the virus after returning from Iran via Dubai and Sharjah. The new cases were carried by Bahraini and Saudi nationals who arrived at Bahrain International Airport from Iran via Dubai or Sharjah.
The Saudi Ministry of Health said that it was coordinating with Bahraini health officials for the treatment of the Saudi women who had visited Iran. They will remain in Bahrain until they are fully recovered. The Kingdom has advised citizens and residents to avoid traveling to Italy and Japan.
Iranian authorities have ordered the nationwide cancellation of concerts and soccer matches and the closure of schools and universities in many provinces.
The head of Qom’s Medical Science University, Mohammad Reza Ghadir, expressed concern over “the spread of those people infected by the virus across the city,” adding the Health Ministry had banned releasing figures linked to the coronavirus.
Many Iranians took to social media to accuse authorities of concealing the facts.
Rouhani called for calm, saying the outbreak was no worse than other epidemics that Iran has weathered.
The sight of Iranians wearing masks and gloves is now common in much of the country.
Sales of masks, disinfectant gels and disposable gloves have soared in Tehran and other cities, with officials vowing to prevent hoarding and shortages by boosting production.
Iran has shut schools, universities and cultural centers until the end of the week in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The UAE has banned all flights to and from Iran. The UAE, home to long-haul carriers Emirates and Etihad, remains a key international transit route for Iran’s 80 million people.
Emirates, the government-owned carrier based in Dubai, flies daily to Tehran. Its low-cost sister airline, FlyDubai, flies to multiple Iranian cities, as does the Sharjah-based low-cost carrier Air Arabia.
The announcement came after Bahrain said it would suspend all flights from Dubai and Sharjah.
Kuwait raised the number of its infected cases to eight, after earlier raising the number to five. It said the three latest cases involved Kuwaiti citizens just back from Iran, without giving more details. The five previously reported cases were passengers returning on a flight from the Iranian city of Mashhad, where Iran’s government has not yet announced a single case of the virus.
Kuwait had halted transport links with Iran over the weekend and said it was evacuating its citizens from Iran.
An Iraqi family of four who returned from a visit to Iran tested positive for the coronavirus, the first Iraqis known to have caught the disease.
The four cases in Kirkuk province brought Iraq’s total to five after it reported its first case on Monday, an Iranian theology student in Najaf. Iraq is deeply concerned about its exposure to the Iranian outbreak, as it has deep cultural and religious ties with its neighbor and typically receives millions of Iranians each year.
The Iraqi government, which has already banned all travel from China and Iran, added Italy, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and Japan to its travel ban list on Tuesday. Returning Iraqi citizens are exempt, as are diplomats.
Populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr suspended a call for his followers to hold a “million-man” protest, saying he had decide to forbid the events “for your health and life, for they are more important to me than anything else.”
“I had called for million-man protests and sit-ins against sectarian power-sharing and today I forbid you from them for your health and life, for they are more important to me than anything else,” he said in a statement. It was not immediately clear how the government’s call on citizens to avoid public gatherings would affect the strength of anti-government protests, and the response of security forces.
A Turkish Airlines plane flying from Iran was diverted to Ankara on Tuesday at the Turkish Health Ministry’s request and an aviation news website said one passenger was suspected of being infected by coronavirus.
Turkey’s Demiroren news agency broadcast video showing ambulances lined up beside the plane, with several personnel wearing white protective suits on the tarmac.
The plane was flying from Tehran and had been scheduled to land in Istanbul. Turkey shut its borders to Iran on Sunday and cut flights due to the spread of the virus in that country.
Oman’s Khasab port has suspended the import and export of goods to and from Iran from Feb. 26.