December 21, 2018: Hafedh Caid Essebsi, Ridha Charfeddine, Sofien Toubel, Neji Jalloul, Ridha Belhaj are all at the Iberostar Royal Mansour Thalasso in Mahdia. Aside from these leading party officials, 55 other Nidaa Tounes members are put up in the hotel for two nights for a sum of 8,691.8 Tunisian dinars. More likely than not, party members would never have congregated in this five-star tourist establishment were it not for the role played by a far lesser-known figure, Anis Riahi, the party’s new treasurer. He was appointed on October 19, 2018 when the party announced the new composition of its political committee following the fusion with UPL.
Anis Riahi, party treasurer and funder
Costs associated with the conference were fully covered by Express Logistic (see check below and invoice here), official Tunisia representative of the American company and world leader in postal services and air cargo, UPS (United Parcel Service). The president-general director of Express Logistic is none other than Nidaa Tounes treasurer Anis Riahi.
This kind of financing, however, is prohibited by Decree-law 2011-87 of 24 September 2011 concerning the organization of political parties, which reads under its Article 19:
It is forbidden for political parties to accept: — direct or indirect financing, in cash or in kind, from a foreign party. — direct or indirect financing from an unknown source. — aid, gifts and donations from public or private legal entities, with the exception of funding under the State budet. — gifts, donations and inheritance from private persons of which the annual sum surpasses sixty thousand (60,000) dinars per donor.
This sort of financing for a partisan activity is prohibited not only by Tunisian legislation, but under UPS’ own policies. As their Code of Business Conduct clearly spells out: « As private citizens, we may participate in the political process, including contributing to the candidates or political parties of our choice. However, such personal political activities or contributions must not involve or even appear to involve use of UPS’s funds and resources ». The company displays apparent concern for the question regarding « Political Activities and Contributions » (page 34), to which it devotes a separate section in its code of conduct.
Contacted by Nawaat, Anis Riahi denied that the check went to footing the bill for party affairs. « We organized a training seminar in the context of Express Logistic activities. What’s the problem? » he responded. But his version of the facts is hardly credible when we compare the amount displayed on the hotel invoice (8,691.8 dinars) with a virtually equivalent sum written out on Express Logistic’s check (8,691.2 dinars). Another telling coincidence: Express Logistic’s check was made out for December 23, end date of Nidaa Tounes’ national conference. « To the best of my knowledge, Kacem Makhlouf received a subvention from the owner of the hotel », Riahi told Nawaat.
Kacem Makhlouf is none other than Nidaa Tounes’ new national secretary of party structures. Did he in fact receive this donation? « What is it to you whether or not I received a subvention? » responded Makhlouf before adding elusively, « I don’t receive subventions. The treasurer handles this. You need to contact him ». When we mentioned Riahi’s previous comments, Makhlouf concluded in a murmur, « If the treasurer said it… he’s the one who knows ». Nonetheless, Nawaat contacted several Express Logistic employees who work at different levels. Not a single one had received training or ever heard about a seminar held in a five-star hotel in Mahdia.
Financing for privileges?
Whereas Express Logistic became active in November 2011 and was slow in making a place for itself in the market, Anis Riahi seems to have been in quite the rush since announcing the creation of his new air cargo company in October 2015. And with good reason: the investment was no small affair, with 46 to 52 million dinars thrown down over the first three years of operation. Moreover, Riahi managed to obtain a permit for flight operation [Permis d’exploitation aérienne (AOC)], a privilege very rarely granted by the Transport Ministry. The authorization was issued while Riahi’s camarade from Nidaa Tounes, Anis Ghedira—another figure suspected of cronyism—was serving at the head of the Ministry. On a trip to Washington with prime minister Youssef Chahed in July 2017, Riahi signed an agreement with aerospace construction giant Boeing. According to Riahi, the project consists in Express Air Technique, a Boeing-certified maintenance and training center worth 90 million dinars.
The nature of these activities and significant resources mobilized roused the anger of Tunisair union members, who accused Anis Riahi and Express Air Cargo of acquiring privileges that are detrimental to the interests of the national airline. On October 26, 2018, a meeting on the dispute brought union members and Tunisair management around one table. The secretary general of one Tunisair union, Najm Mzoughi, went so far as to label Anis Riahi a « thief » and « crook » on his Facebook page.
At the moment when president Caïd Essebsi, founder of Nidaa Tounes, is being sued for having granted special amnesty to Borhen Bsaies, previously condemned for corruption; at the moment when Caïd Essebsi is being accused of favoring impunity and defending partisan interests to the detriment of the public interest; at the moment when Caïd Essebsi’s son Hafedh is being called out for former relations with the currently incarcerated mafioso Chafik Jarraya; at the moment when Nidaa Tounes’ new secretary, Slim Riahi, is prolonging his stay overseas while he has been summoned to testify in cases concerning corruption, this affair serves as both proof and reminder that for Nidaa Tounes, cronyism is king.