Tunisia says no 'power vacuum' despite president's illness

Tunis (AFP) –


Authorities on Friday reassured anxious Tunisians there is no power vacuum in the North African state, shaken by President Beji Caid Essebsi's hospitalisation on the same day as twin suicide attacks in the capital.

Essebsi, 92, was taken to hospital for a "serious illness" on Thursday, even as the blasts claimed by the Islamic State group killed a police officer in Tunis and wounded several other people.

Officials sought to calm fears among Tunisians that the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings would descend into new violence and political instability.

"We have a president. There is no constitutional vacancy," one of Essebsi's key advisors, Noureddine Ben Ticha, told the Express FM radio station.

He said the president's condition was "unchanged".

On Thursday several media reported Essebsi's death after the presidency announced that one of the world's oldest heads of state -- behind only Britain's 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth II -- was taken to hospital.

But those claims were denied by the authorities.

Key advisor Firas Guefrech described the president as in "critical" but "stable" condition while Essebsi's son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, spoke of "the beginnings of an improvement" in his father's condition.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed visited the ailing leader and said he was receiving "the necessary care", warning people not to spread "false and confusing information".

- 'Difficult times' -

On the streets of Tunis the mood was hopeful but cautious.

"I hope he will return to the (presidential) palace in good health quickly because his absence in such difficult times will plunge the country into chaos," said Ibrahim Chaouachi, 40, echoing many of his compatriots.

Tunisia's constitution, adopted three years after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, provides two measures in the case of a power vacuum.

The prime minister can take over the president's responsibilities for a period of no more than 60 days, or if the vacancy is longer the speaker of parliament is tasked with the role for up to 90 days.

In both cases the decision must be taken by the constitutional court after it validates the president's incapacity.

But eight years after the Arab Spring, Tunisia has yet to set up a constitutional court.

On Thursday parliament speaker Mohammed Ennaceur, 85, met the heads of parties following the twin suicide bombings and Essebsi's illness.

The country's first democratically elected president, Essebsi came to power in 2014.

His prolonged absence from the public eye could spell uncertainty for Tunisia, where democracy remains fragile especially ahead of presidential and legislative elections, scheduled for October and November.

- 'Terrorists want to scare us' -

Tunisia has been hit by repeated Islamist attacks since the 2011 uprising.

Chahed denounced the latest bombings as "cowardly" and meant to "destabilise Tunisians, the economy and democratic transition", in a nod to the October polls and the tourism season which is in full swing.

The blasts -- one on the central Habib Bourguiba avenue and another against a security base -- killed a police officer and wounded at least eight people including several civilians.

Most of the wounded are "in a stable condition", interior ministry spokesman Sofiene Zaag said Friday.

One of the bombers has been identified and a probe is trying to determine if he had any links with an extremist group, he added.

Heavy security was deployed Friday around Habib Bourguiba avenue and the nearby interior ministry, while shops that had closed after the bombings reopened for business.

"The terrorists want to scare us but we say NO," Rached Mamlouk, a salesman at a bookshop said, pointing to people walking about and tourist buses parked nearby.

In the working class Tunis suburb of Sidi Hassin, mourners gathered Friday for the funeral of the police office killed in one of the bombings.