Biden to host Iraqi leader with talks underway on winding down coalition against Daesh

Biden to host Iraqi leader with talks underway on winding down coalition against Daesh
U.S. President Joe Biden will host Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani at the White House on April 15, the White House said on Friday. (Reuters/File)
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Updated 22 March 2024
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Biden to host Iraqi leader with talks underway on winding down coalition against Daesh

Biden to host Iraqi leader with talks underway on winding down coalition against Daesh
  • The leaders will “consult on a range of issues,” including the fight against Daesh
  • The two countries have a delicate relationship due in part to Iran’s considerable sway in Iraq

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden plans to host Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani, who is visiting next month as the countries hold formal talks about winding down the mission of a US-led military coalition formed to fight the Daesh group in Iraq.
The meeting is scheduled for April 15, the White House said Friday.
The leaders will “consult on a range of issues,” including the fight against Daesh and “ongoing Iraqi financial reforms to promote economic development and progress toward Iraq’s financial independence and modernization,” the White House said.
The two countries have a delicate relationship due in part to Iran’s considerable sway in Iraq, where a coalition of Iran-backed groups brought Al-Sudani to power in October 2022.
The US in recent months has urged Iraq to do more to prevent attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria that have further roiled the Middle East in the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. It’s also sought to apply financial pressure over Baghdad’s relationship with Tehran, restricting Iraq’s access to its own dollars in an effort to stamp out money laundering said to benefit Iran and Syria.
The US and Iraq, meanwhile, held a first session in January to discuss ending the coalition created to help the Iraqi government fight Daesh, with some 2,000 US troops remaining in the country under an agreement with Baghdad. Iraqi officials have periodically called for a withdrawal of those forces.
The visit will also come a year after the kidnapping in Baghdad of Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Russian-American academic at Princeton University who is believed to be held by an Iran-backed militia, Kataib Hezbollah, that is regarded by Washington as a terrorist group and is seen as one of the most powerful armed groups in Iraq. It was formed during the power vacuum that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, with support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
On Thursday, Tsurkov’s sister, Emma, urged the State Department to declare Iraq a state sponsor of terrorism and called on the White House to make the Al-Sudani meeting contingent on the prime minister arranging for the release of her sister — something she said that he was empowered to do.
“I am appalled that Sudani will be allowed to shake President Biden’s hand while his other hand holds the keys to my sister’s shackles,” Tsurkov said at event outside the Iraqi Embassy in Washington.


Crucial farm jobs dry up in drought-stricken Morocco

Crucial farm jobs dry up in drought-stricken Morocco
Updated 24 sec ago
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Crucial farm jobs dry up in drought-stricken Morocco

Crucial farm jobs dry up in drought-stricken Morocco
  • The area is now about 2.5 million hectares compared to four million prior to the onset of severe water scarcity, according to figures given by Agriculture Minister Mohammed Sadiki

SIDI SLIMANE, Morocco: In a sun-baked village north of Morocco’s capital Rabat, Mustapha Loubaoui and other itinerant workers wait idly by the roadside for farm work made scarce by a six-year drought.
Loubaoui, 40, rode his combine harvester for 280 kilometers (175 miles) hoping to pick up work in what previously had been the booming agricultural village of Dar Bel Amri.
His day-long journey was for nothing. Now Loubaoui fears he will end up like the roughly 159,000 Moroccan agricultural workers who, official figures say, have lost their jobs since early last year.
“Work has become hard to come by because of drought,” Loubaoui told AFP.
Large areas of the Mediterranean have been under “alert drought conditions,” a phenomenon even more pronounced in Morocco and its neighbors Algeria and Tunisia, according to the European Drought Observatory’s latest analysis.
In Morocco, a lack of water threatens the viability of the important agriculture sector, which employs around a third of the working-age population and accounts for 14 percent of exports.
More than one third of Morocco’s total cultivated area lies unused because of drought.
The area is now about 2.5 million hectares compared to four million prior to the onset of severe water scarcity, according to figures given by Agriculture Minister Mohammed Sadiki.
And as the arable land shrank, so did employment.
The North African kingdom’s unemployment rates rose to a record 13.7 percent in the first quarter of 2024, said the High Planning Commission (HCP), the government’s statistical body.
It said 1.6 million of Morocco’s 37 million people are out of work and stressed that “the labor market continues to endure the effects of drought.”

Among the people behind the statistics is Chlih El Baghdadi, a farmer who lives near Dar Bel Amri.
His grain harvest suffered a major loss from drought, leaving him sitting at home rather than working his fields.
He and his five children now depend financially on his wife, who is employed at a larger farm near the city of Meknes, about 70 kilometers from their village.
Such operations, whose yield is mainly for export, have survived the drought because of their water-hungry irrigation systems employed under the “Green Morocco Plan” (PMV) launched in 2008.
Since then, agricultural revenues doubled from 63 billion dirhams to 125 billion dirhams ($12.5 billion) in 10 years, according to official data.
Another program, “Generation Green 2020-2030,” aims to enhance Morocco’s sustainable agriculture in light of climate challenges.
It targets a doubling of agricultural exports to reach 60 billion dirhams by 2030.
Yet despite the initiatives, climate change-driven unemployment has not eased.
“We have modern and sophisticated agriculture, but it only spans around 15 percent of cultivatable areas,” said Abderrahim Handouf, a researcher and agricultural engineer.
The “majority of farmers remain at the mercy of climate change” and other economic sectors are “not able to accommodate them,” he added.

The kingdom has striven to develop its industrial and service sectors over the past two decades, hoping to create more jobs, but these have not compensated for climate-linked unemployment.
Cars, for example, topped Morocco’s exports last year with a record value of more than 141 billion dirhams.
But the industry “only creates up to 90,000 jobs per year” while there are 300,000 job seekers, Moroccan industry minister Ryad Mezzour said in May.
“Employment is the weak spot of the economic system,” he said in a radio interview.
Facing criticism, Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch told parliament last month that “drought has become reality.”
He announced the expected creation of 140,000 new jobs as part of investment deals worth 241 billion dirhams in fields including renewable energy, telecommunication, tourism and health.
But the numbers were far from the million jobs he had promised to create by 2026.
For farmers like Benaissa Kaaouan, 66, it’s too late. He said he would have walked away from agriculture if he had learned another skill.
Now he stands in the middle of his zucchini fields in Dar Bel Amri, most of them sun-spoiled.
“There’s no life without rain,” Kaaouan said ruefully.
 

 


Gaza talks halted until Israel shows it’s serious about negotiations, say Egyptian sources

Gaza talks halted until Israel shows it’s serious about negotiations, say Egyptian sources
Updated 13 July 2024
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Gaza talks halted until Israel shows it’s serious about negotiations, say Egyptian sources

Gaza talks halted until Israel shows it’s serious about negotiations, say Egyptian sources
  • The sources said that the behavior of the Israeli mediators revealed “internal discord“

CAIRO: Gaza ceasefire talks have been halted after three days of intense negotiations failed to produce a viable outcome, two Egyptian security sources said on Saturday, blaming Israel for lacking a genuine intent to reach agreement.
The sources, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said that the behavior of the Israeli mediators revealed “internal discord.”
According to the sources, the Israeli delegation would give approvals on several conditions under discussion, but then come back with amendments or introduce new conditions that risked sinking the negotiations.
The sources said the mediators viewed the “contradictions, delays in responses, and the introduction of new terms contrary to what was previously agreed” as signs the Israeli side viewed the talks as a formality aimed at influencing public opinion.


Can Iran’s IRGC avenge serial deaths of commanders and cadres in Syria and Lebanon?

Can Iran’s IRGC avenge serial deaths of commanders and cadres in Syria and Lebanon?
Updated 48 min 12 sec ago
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Can Iran’s IRGC avenge serial deaths of commanders and cadres in Syria and Lebanon?

Can Iran’s IRGC avenge serial deaths of commanders and cadres in Syria and Lebanon?
  • Experts divided on Tehran’s capacity for retaliation against suspected targeted killings by Israel
  • Prospect of all-out war in southern Lebanon compounds problems for Iran’s military leadership

LONDON: In one of his first statements since winning the runoff election earlier this month, Iran’s President-elect Masoud Pezeshkian indicated that militant groups across the Middle East would not allow Israel’s “criminal policies” toward the Palestinians to continue.

In a message on July 8 to Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group, he said: “The Islamic Republic has always supported the resistance of the people of the region against the illegitimate Zionist regime.”

So far, however, Iran’s losses appear to outweigh greatly the cost it has been able to impose on the country suspected of inflicting them.

A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shows him (R) and Iran's newly elected President Masoud Pezeshkian attending a mourning ritual in Tehran late on July 12, 2024. (AFP)

Two months after Israel and Iran appeared to be on the brink of all-out war, a suspected Israeli airstrike near Syria’s northern city of Aleppo in June dealt another blow to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Saeed Abyar, who was in Syria on an “advisory mission,” according to a statement issued by the IRGC, died in an attack on June 3, bringing the total number of key IRGC figures killed in suspected Israeli strikes since Oct. 7 last year to 19.

Damascus accused Israel of orchestrating the strikes from the southeast of Aleppo. Israel, however, rarely comments on individual attacks.

 

 

It came just days after Israel launched air attacks on Syria’s central region as well as the coastal city of Baniyas on May 29, killing a child and injuring 10 civilians, according to Syrian state media.

“A closer look at the June 3 incident reveals that Israel targeted a copper factory and a weapons warehouse on the outskirts of Aleppo, attacking multiple times,” Francesco Schiavi, an Italy-based geopolitical analyst, told Arab News.

“In these confusing conditions, General Abyar was among several individuals near the impact site, making his death more likely an indirect consequence of an operation against Iranian infrastructure in Syria rather than an intended target of the Israeli attack, generally conducted with high-precision weapons.”

INNUMBERS

19 Officers of IRGC’s Quds Force branch killed in suspected Israeli strikes since Oct. 7, 2023.

8 IRGC officers killed in single strike on Iran’s embassy annex in Damascus on April 1.

Although Israel is accused of targeting numerous Iranian commanders and cadres on Syrian soil in the past nine months, the June 3 attack was the first to kill an IRGC commander since the April 1 strike on Iran’s embassy annex in Damascus.

That suspected Israeli strike eliminated eight IRGC officers, including Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the highest-ranking commander of the extraterritorial Quds Force to be killed since Qassem Soleimani died in a US drone strike in 2020.

Rescue workers search in the rubble of a building annexed to the Iranian embassy a day after an air strike in Damascus on April 2, 2024. (AFP)

Iran launched a massive retaliatory attack against Israel on April 13 — its first direct assault on Israeli territory, stoking fears of an all-out, region-wide conflict. The following day, IRGC chief Hossein Salami said his country “decided to create a new equation.”

“From now on, if Israel attacks Iranian interests, figures, and citizens anywhere, we will retaliate from Iran,” he said.

Observers, unsure how Iran might respond this time, remain on edge, especially as tensions mount in southern Lebanon, the stronghold of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia, which has been trading cross-border fire with Israel since Oct. 8 last year.

“Tehran warned that a ‘new equation’ had been established whereby Iran would retaliate against any Israeli attacks on its interests in the region,” said Schiavi.

Smoke from Israeli bombardment billows in Kfarkila in southern Lebanon on July 12, 2024 amid ongoing cross-border tensions between Israel and Hezbollah. (AFP)

“The lack of precedents makes it challenging to predict what this renewed Iranian approach might entail in practical terms.”

As it has officially accused Israel of killing Abyar, Eva J. Koulouriotis, a political analyst specializing in the Middle East, believes the IRGC will now be “forced to respond” to the June 3 attack in order to bolster its deterrence — potentially setting off a new round of escalation.

“I understand that by this announcement and the threat to respond, Iran does not want the Israel Defense Forces to return to the equation before targeting the Iranian consulate in Syria,” when similar attacks had gone “unpunished,” Koulouriotis told Arab News.

Eldar Mamedov, a Brussels-based expert on the Middle East and Iran, believes the Israeli strike on the Iranian embassy annex in Damascus had “changed the deterrence equation to Tehran’s detriment.”

An Iranian ballistic missile lies on the shores of the Dead Sea after Iran launched drones and missiles toward Israel on April 13, 2024. (Reuters/File)

“Tehran was compelled to retaliate, but even then did so with caution — by forewarning Israel and the US through neighboring countries,” he told Arab News. “The aim was to send a message that Iran would not hesitate to strike Israel directly if it kept killing senior Iranian figures, in order to re-establish the deterrence.”

Mamedov added: “To understand what scenarios could prompt Iran to retaliate against Israel for the elimination of IRGC officers in Syria and Lebanon, we need to take into account the overall context of Iranian presence there.

“It is primarily about the ‘forward defense’ strategy through allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and proxy groups in Syria, the aim of which is to deter Israel from attacking Iran and its nuclear installations directly.”

Mourners join a funeral procession on July 10, 2024, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, for senior Hezbollah commander Yasser Nemr Qranbish, who was killed a day earlier in an Israeli airstrike that hit his car in Syria near the border with Lebanon. Qranbish was a former personal bodyguard of Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, an official with the Lebanese militant group said. (AP)

Nevertheless, Mamedov believes Iran “is willing to avoid an all-out war with Israel and/or the US.”

The death of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash on May 19, along with the foreign minister and other senior officials, forced Tehran to bring forward its presidential elections, which had not been due until 2025.

“As Iran is immersed in preparing the ground for an inevitable leadership transition, it is wary of further regional destabilization,” said Mamedov. “I do not think that this fundamental calculus has changed.”

Schiavi concurred, saying that Iran’s current “domestic leadership crisis” means the government is now preoccupied with the leadership transition, making a fresh round of retaliatory action unlikely.

He noted Iran’s “longstanding blend of pragmatism and assertiveness in responding to regional developments,” citing “the carefully measured direct attack on Israel on April 13, which was intended to avoid plunging the two countries into open confrontation.”

Schiavi added: “Despite Tehran’s continued adherence to its strategy of supporting the pro-Iranian axis and maintaining continuity in its regional policy despite sudden political upheaval, the current circumstances make a new wave of attacks on Israel highly unlikely.”

For his part, Mamedov believes Iran will likely “be forced to abandon its caution if tensions between Israel and Hezbollah were to escalate into an open war.”

“Hezbollah is considered by Iran the most capable and effective of its allies in the Levant, with a degree of operational cooperation and ideological alignment that is not met in Tehran’s relations with other allies/proxies,” he said.

“A severely weakened Hezbollah would undermine a vital pillar of Tehran’s ‘forward defense’ strategy, and it is to be expected that it will give its support to the Lebanese group in case of an open war with Israel. However, that depends on how Hezbollah will perform in such a war.”


 

ALSO READ: Iran and Israel: From allies to deadly enemies

 

 


The past month has been particularly tense on the Lebanese border, intensifying fears of an all-out war that would send shockwaves throughout the wider region.

On June 11, an Israeli airstrike on the Lebanese village of Jouya killed a senior Hezbollah commander, Taleb Abdullah, and three fighters. A week later, Iran’s mission to the UN warned Israel about the consequences of going to war with its ally in Lebanon.

A Hezbollah leader speaks in Beirut's southern suburbs on June 12, 2024, during the funeral of Taleb Abdallah, known as Abu Taleb, a senior field commander of Hezbollah who was killed in an Israel strike, on June 1 at a location near the border in southern Lebanon. (AFP)

A little over two weeks later, on June 27, Hezbollah fired dozens of Katyusha rockets at a military base in northern Israel. The group’s leadership said the attack came “in response to the enemy attacks that targeted the city of Nabatieh and the village of Sohmor.”

Until Israel and Hamas reach a deal on a ceasefire in Gaza, Koulouriotis said, “the dangerous escalation on the Lebanese-Israeli border” is an indicator that “we are closer than ever to war.”

“Tehran is directly concerned in light of any escalation that Hezbollah faces in Lebanon,” she said. “That is why I believe that Iran wants to keep the response card to the killing of its officer in Aleppo to be used during any Israeli military operation in southern Lebanon.”

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Noting that officials in Iran are well aware of the US and Europe’s “great fear” of a large-scale escalation in the Middle East, she said “any Iranian military move will put greater pressure on the West, pushing them to restrain Benjamin Netanyahu’s government” in Israel.

Charles Q. Brown, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, recently warned Israel that any offensive in Lebanon could spark a regional war involving Iran and its allies.

Considering current developments on the Lebanon-Israel border, Koulouriotis expects Iran’s response to Israel’s latest attack to be similar to its reaction to the embassy annex attack — “through swarms of drones and cruise missiles.”

“However, if Western diplomatic moves lead to reducing tension on the Lebanese-Israeli border, Iran may resort to a less severe response, and Iraqi Kurdistan may be a suitable place for an Iranian response,” she said

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Pool/AFP)

Schiavi, however, dismisses the idea that Iran “intended to retaliate against every attack on an Iranian target in Syria (or elsewhere) with a direct attack on Israel, especially given the potential accidental nature of General Abyar’s death.”

“The ramifications of the Gaza war highlight the centrality of Syria in Tehran’s Middle East strategy, and this means that Iran will remain committed to maintaining considerable influence in the country for the foreseeable future,” he said.

“Should the conflict escalate further, or should Israel launch a broader assault on other Iranian assets or personnel in Syria, Tehran may feel compelled to respond forcefully, risking the very conflict it seeks to avoid.”

For now, the general consensus is that the actions of the IRGC will be more important than the harsh words of President-elect Pezeshkian or any other regime official in judging Iran’s willingness or ability to challenge Israel militarily.
 

 


Israeli PM Netanyahu says not certain that Hamas leader killed in strike

Israeli PM Netanyahu says not certain that Hamas leader killed in strike
Updated 13 July 2024
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Israeli PM Netanyahu says not certain that Hamas leader killed in strike

Israeli PM Netanyahu says not certain that Hamas leader killed in strike
  • “Either way, we will get to the whole of the leadership of Hamas,” he told a televised news conference
  • Netanyahu said military pressure on Hamas was the best way of reaching an agreement

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was still not clear whether Hamas military chief Mohammed Deif and another senior commander were killed in an Israeli strike in Gaza on Saturday but he vowed to pursue Israel’s war aims to the end.
“Either way, we will get to the whole of the leadership of Hamas,” he told a televised news conference, adding that chances of an agreement to return Israeli hostages would be improved by increasing military pressure on Hamas.
The brief news conference was called after the Israeli military said it had conducted a strike based on what it said was precise intelligence, targeting Deif and senior Hamas commander Rafa Salama in the city of Khan Younis.
Palestinian health officials said the strike killed at least 90 Palestinians and wounded as many as 300 in the designated humanitarian zone of Al Mawasi, in the heaviest loss of life in weeks.
The Israeli military said the strike had hit a military compound but said it could not confirm casualty numbers.
Netanyahu, speaking as demonstrators in Tel Aviv demanded more action to bring Israeli and foreign hostages back from Gaza, said that military pressure on Hamas was the best way of reaching an agreement to return the hostages seized by Hamas fighters during the Oct. 7 attack.
He said he would not compromise on Israel’s basic demands for a deal.
“I haven’t moved a millimeter from the framework that President Biden presented,” he said. “But I am also not letting Hamas move a millimeter.”


Arrests, summonses of potential presidential candidates in Tunisia continue as election day nears

Arrests, summonses of potential presidential candidates in Tunisia continue as election day nears
Updated 13 July 2024
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Arrests, summonses of potential presidential candidates in Tunisia continue as election day nears

Arrests, summonses of potential presidential candidates in Tunisia continue as election day nears
  • Abdellatif Mekki is among a group of former politicians being investigated for the 2014 killing of a prominent physician
  • The challenges facing opposition candidates are a far cry from the democratic hopes felt throughout Tunisia a decade ago

TUNIS: As elections approach in Tunisia, potential candidates are facing arrest or being summoned to appear in court as authorities clamp down on those planning to challenge President Kais Saied.
On Friday, a judge in a Tunis court put a potential presidential candidate under a gag order and restricted his movements. Abdellatif Mekki, who served as Tunisia’s health minister and was a prominent leader of the Islamist movement Ennahda before founding his own political party, is among a group of former politicians being investigated for the 2014 killing of a prominent physician.
His political party, Work and Accomplishment, has decried the timing of the murder charges as politically motivated due to his plans to run against Saied in Tunisia’s October election.
“We strongly condemn these arbitrary measures, considering them political targeting of a serious candidate in the presidential elections,” it said in a statement Friday.
Mekki is the latest potential candidate to face legal obstacles before campaigning even gets underway in the 12 million person North African nation.
The challenges facing opposition candidates are a far cry from the democratic hopes felt throughout Tunisia a decade ago. The country emerged as one of the Arab Spring’s only success stories after deposing former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, holding peaceful, democratic elections and rewriting its constitution in 2014.
Since 2019, observers have been alarmed at growing signs of a democratic backslide. Saied has imprisoned political opponents, suspended parliament and rewritten the constitution to consolidate the power of the presidency. Despite Tunisia’s ongoing political and economic challenges, large segments of the population continue to support him and his populist rhetoric targeting corrupt elites and foreign interference into domestic affairs.
About a week before Mekki, Lotfi Mraihi, a physician and veteran politician who had also announced plans to run for president, was arrested on money laundering related charges.
Mraihi, the president of the nationalist Republican People’s Union party, was kept in custody after a judge issued an additional warrant adding to charges filed against him in January.
A court spokesperson in Tunis told Radio Mosaique that the arrest warrant was served “on suspicion of money laundering, transfer of assets and opening of bank accounts abroad without the Central Bank’s approval.”
Last January, the court sentenced Mraihi to a suspended six-month prison term as part of an investigation into a 2019 case related to vote-buying allegations.
The Tunisian non-governmental organization Legal Agenda described the arrest as a show of force.
“The arrest of the presumed candidate, Lotfi Mrahi, represents a new step by the authorities in tightening its grip on the electoral process, after announcing ‘tailor-made’ conditions for candidacy, while judicial rulings ensure that the rest of the candidates in the race are besieged,” it said in a statement last week.
The arrests add Mekki and Mraihi to the list of Tunisian politicians pursued by the courts in Saied’s Tunisia.
Amnesty International said in February that over the year prior more than 20 political critics of Saied’s government had been arrested, detained or convicted on charges related to their political activity.
The pursuit of Saied’s political opponents has spanned the political spectrum, from Tunisia’s lslamists like Ennahda’s 83-year-old leader Rached Ghannouchi and nationalists like Free Destourian Party President 49-year-old Abir Moussi.
Ghannouchi has been behind bars since May 2024, facing foreign interference charges that Ennahda, the country’s largest Islamist party, has decried as politically motivated.
Tunisia’s anti-terrorism court sentenced him to one year in prison and a fine following public statements he made at a funeral in February 2022, when he appeared to call the president “a tyrant.”
Ghannouchi continues to face legal challenges. This weekend, the court sentenced him to three years in prison on charges that he was involved in an illicit foreign financing scheme during the last presidential election.
Moussi, a popular right-wing figure who appeals to Tunisians nostalgic for the pre-revolution era, was arrested in October 2023. She was initially detained while being investigated under a controversial cybercrime law after Tunisia’s election authority filed a complaint against her. The complaint came after Moussi criticized a lack of transparency and the presidential decrees guiding the electoral process.
Moussi’s party had announced plans to challenge Saied in October before her arrest and confirmed them earlier this month, though she remains imprisoned.
The National Salvation Front — a coalition of secular and Islamist parties including Ennahda — has said Tunisia can’t hold a legitimate election in such a political climate. The group has denounced the process as a sham and said it won’t endorse or nominate a candidate.
This arrests have sparked outrage among individual political parties and inflamed worries about the country’s ailing political and economic atmosphere landscape.
Work and Accomplishment, Mekki’s party, said his Friday arrest would “confuse the general political climate, undermine the credibility of the electoral process and harm Tunisia’s image.”