Nabil Karoui: The jailed populist seeking Tunisia’s presidency

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Leading candidate in Tunisia’s presidential election is currently in jail facing money laundering, tax evasion charges.

 Days ahead of Tunisia’s election on Sunday, the market in the centre of this port town was covered with red and white flyers bearing the face of media tycoon Nabil Karoui.

But Karoui, 56, a candidate for the presidency, was absent from his own campaign as he sits in jail on suspicion of money laundering and tax evasion.

His party, Qalb Tounes, claim that his arrest in late August was politically motivated; an attempt by the government to eliminate political opponents. But the mood in the market suggests that it has had the opposite effect.

“The people love him, the politicians do not love him, that’s why he’s in prison,” said fishmonger Lotfi Bourguiba, 51, waving a Qalb Tounes flyer in one hand and a fish in the other to “drive away the evil eye”.

Mamia, a 58-year-old woman selling bread, cried when he was arrested. “He was arrested because he is good – he fed people, clothed them, he bought them fridges and televisions,” she said.

The most recent polls placed Karoui top of the list, ahead of other prominent candidates including Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi and Abdelfattah Mourou, candidate for the Islamist party Ennahdha.

His ascent was fuelled by widespread dissatisfaction with the economic crisis in the country, where purchasing power has plummeted by more than 80 percent according to some accounts and almost two-thirds of Tunisian families cannot meet their daily needs without going into debt.

While he presents himself as anti-establishment, Karoui has long been involved in Tunisia’s political scene.

He was a founding member of Nidaa Tounes, the secular block created by President Beji Caid Essebsi, and his TV channel Nessma backed the late president during his 2014 campaign.

After leaving the party in 2017, Karoui started using the channel differently. He began to broadcast the activities of his charity – Khalil Tounes, named after his son who died in a car accident – with which he travelled round to the poorest regions in the country, handing out food and medicine.

The judicial action taken against him was based on a complaint filed in 2016 by the anti-corruption NGO IWatch.

A slew of outrage followed, broadcast on Nessma TV, characterising his arrest as a “kidnapping” by “a government militia”. This resulted in a fine of 20 thousand dinars ($7,000) from the media regulator, the Haica, for engaging in “political advertising” and describing a legal arrest as a kidnapping, said Hichem Smouissi, a member of the Haica committee.

Oussema Khlifi, campaign coordinator for Qalb Tounes, who made the offending remarks on Nessma, was with Karoui at the time of his arrest. “I maintain that it was a political arrest, [the police] used an extraordinary force,” he said, on the campaign trail in Menzel Bourguiba, Bizerte. “It is coming from the power that is in place – they are using the law politically to stop him because he is first in the polls.”

Michael Ayari, senior analyst at Crisis Group, said Karoui has been able to use the arrest to present himself as a victim.

“The arrest has led a lot of Tunisians to think that [Prime Minister] Youssef Chahed arbitrarily used the judiciary for [political ends],” he told Al Jazeera.

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