CHICAGO: Political turmoil and the rise of the Annahda Islamist Party in Tunisia have undermined the country’s stability and crippled its ability to control the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), a leading analyst and writer said Wednesday.
Tunisia was initially praised for managing COVID-19 when the pandemic first began in January 2020. But as politics shifted away from the secular leadership and Annahda took over, Tunisia now has one of the highest infection rates in the Arab world.
Longtime Tunisian journalist Ammar Ben Aziz said the shift from having the lowest COVID-19 infection rate to having one of the highest is directly connected to Annahda expanding its political control and mishandling the government health services.
“In North Africa, I think politics has affected the coronavirus and not the inverse. If we go back to the first stage of the pandemic, we can remember that Tunisia was the first country in the world that controlled the spread of the virus. It had zero cases in May 2020,” Ben Aziz said during an interview on The Ray Hanania Radio Show on Wednesday.
“It was a very big success for the government, which was then led by Elyes Fakhfakh, who was appointed by the president, Kais Saied, and not by the Annahda Party. Let us keep that in mind. And then when they changed the prime minister or the head of government, everything collapsed because they (Annahda) were playing with this pandemic just to make a political profit.”
Ben Aziz said President Saied appointed Fakhfakh as prime minister in February 2020. But Fakhfakh was dismissed by Annahda seven months later as it consolidated its government powers.
“This is the main reason why we are seeing what happened in Tunisia a couple of days ago. This is the main reason. The government, which is controlled by Annahda, is just trying to make a profit from everything,” said Ben Aziz, who is an editor at the Al Arabiya news channel based out of Dubai.
“In Algeria, if you remember in the first days of the pandemic, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune was hit by COVID-19 and left Algeria. He spent months in Germany to heal. That also affected the situation in Algeria and postponed the plan on how to deal with the pandemic.”
Turmoil in the country’s politics caused by Annahda’s power grab left the nation unprepared to deal with the surge of the delta variant, a much more potent and dangerous version of the virus.
“They thought it was enough. They thought they were the first country that managed to control the pandemic instead of flipping to the next stage and listening to experts that warned them that there were other waves coming. Then they just decided to open up to the world,” Ben Aziz said. “It was the first country to open the frontiers and the borders, especially to Europe and to the Tunisian migrants outside (of the country).”
Annahda failed to anticipate how the pandemic might evolve as it spread, nor did it anticipate the rise of the more virulent delta variant.
Ben Aziz called Annahda’s political move “a very stupid decision,” simply because they wanted to put someone from their own political party in control of the health department.
“They started talking about how to remove Hisham Mashishi, the current head of the (health) ministry, and replace him with their minister to show others they were doing well. They wanted to exploit Kais Saied’s successes,” Ben Aziz said. Saied responded by accusing Annahda of “playing politics with the lives of the Tunisian people.”
Ben Aziz noted that Annahda’s efforts to warm up to the Russians have also played a major role in the pandemic surge in Tunisia. The Annahda government chose to use the Russian vaccine, which is seen as being less effective than the vaccines developed in the West, such as Pfizer and Moderna.
Many Arab countries have pledged support to help Tunisia regain control over the virus. Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged to send vaccinations and medical equipment while Libya also promised medical aid, Saied’s office said this week.
Libya, Kuwait, Turkey, and Algeria also pledged aid while Qatar sent a medical plane with 200 medics and 100 respirators to help.
Ben Aziz made his comments during an appearance Wednesday on “The Ray Hanania Radio Show” broadcast live on WNZK AM 690 Radio in Detroit, and WDMV AM 700 Radio in Washington D.C. on the US Arab Radio Network. The radio show was streamed live on the Arab News Facebook page and is on a podcast at ArabNews.com/RayRadioshow.