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Tunisia’s President Essebsi rushed to hospital after ‘serious health crisis’

Zoubeir Souissi, REUTERS file picture | Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, Tunisia November 8, 2018.

Tunisia’s 92-year-old president, Beji Caid Essebsi, a major player in the country’s transition to democracy since 2011, was taken to a military hospital on Thursday after suffering a “severe health crisis”, the presidency said.

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One of Essebsi’s advisers told Reuters he was in a “very critical” condition.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said on Facebook that Essebsi was receiving the attention he needed and that people should stop spreading fake news about his condition, after some reports said the president had died.

The presidency said in a new statement that “his condition now is stable and he is under the necessary checks”.

Speaking to FRANCE 24’s French language service later on Thursday, the Tunisian president’s spokesperson Saida Garrach confirmed that Essebsi was being cared for at the public military hospital in order "to ensure transparency", which is why "we did not transfer the president to a private clinic or a foreign institution".

"He is doing better but at the same time the medical team is performing a set of tests” to provide greater reassurance, Garrach said.

She also confirmed that the president was conscious, but tired.

The elderly head of state was hospitalised last week for what the presidency described as "non-serious" treatment.

Essebsi has been a prominent figure in Tunisia since the overthrow of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, which was followed by uprisings against autocratic leaders across the Middle East, including in nearby Libya and Egypt.

Tunisia set itself on a path to democracy without much of the violence seen elsewhere, although it has been the target of militant Islamists over the years.

On Thursday, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in attacks on police in the capital Tunis, killing one officer and wounding several others, while militant attacks in 2015 left dozens of people dead and drove away foreign tourists and investors alike.

Government troops have been battling militant groups in remote areas near the border with Algeria, while high unemployment has also stoked unrest in recent years.

Elections due in autumn

After the overthrow of Ben Ali, Essebsi led the immediate transition as prime minister in 2011. He was elected president three years later. Essebsi had also been a senior figure before 2011, having served as foreign minister under state founder Habib Bourguiba and parliamentary speaker under Ben Ali.

In June, he said he would not run for a second term in elections this year, despite his party calling for him to stand. The party has not yet identified another candidate.

Parliamentary elections are expected to be held on Oct. 6 with a presidential vote following on Nov. 17.

Under a new constitution guaranteeing democratic freedoms, Essebsi has limited powers compared with Ben Ali, and he is mainly responsible for foreign and defence policies.

The day-to-day business of government and economic policy is run by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, in office since 2016. He is also the main contact person for the International Monetary Fund and other donors which have kept Tunisia afloat amid its economic crisis.

Tunisia has been hailed as the only democratic success of the Arab Spring uprisings against dictatorship, with a new constitution and free elections in 2011 and 2014. But political progress has not been matched by economic advances. Unemployment stands at about 15 percent, up from 12 percent in 2010, due to weak growth and low investment.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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