For Slim Riahi, the fall of 2017 is gradually turning into a nightmare. It’s clearly his black autumn. Coming under the scrutiny of law enforcement agencies for more than six months, the business tycoon is slowly withdrawing from public life and isolating himself — probably against his will.
At the peak of his career, Riahi, founder of the Free Patriotic Union (UPL), held various key positions that had cemented his place among the main actors of post-revolution Tunisia. He played a crucial role in drafting a path toward prosperity and development for Tunisia.
However, Riahi’s fall began on June 28, 2017, when the Tunisian business mogul — whose party, until recently, was a member of the coalition government that included the Nidaa Tounes party and the Islamist movement Ennahdha as its main components — had his property and assets frozen on suspicion of corruption and money laundering.
On September 20 last year, law enforcement agencies decided to forbid him from leaving the country, based on the persistent rumor that he was planning to flee Tunisia permanently. He promptly denied this, stating that there was never any question of him “leaving Tunisia definitively” and that he routinely goes “back and forth between Tunis and London”.
Three weeks later came the third milestone in Riahi’s descent into hell: the Tunis court sentenced the businessman to five years in prison in a case of bounced cheques, after the court issued a series of search warrants against him in August. Before that — as though to confirm that misfortunes never come alone — on October 14, unknown individuals burgled Riahi’s office on the banks of Lake Tunis and stole money and documents that were described as important and confidential. Feeling harassed, the businessman finally gave in and accepted his fate. On November 2, Riahi announced his resignation from the presidency of the African Club, after refusing for a long time to submit to what looked like an injunction.
Riahi’s remarkable rise
For the eye-catching politician, it is the beginning of a twilight he had himself announced obliquely on September 20, in a remark that passed unnoticed at that time. “I made the decision to distance myself from the political scene following the latest money-laundering charges to which I was subjected,” he said.
How and why is one of the most powerful men in Tunisia so pushed, slowly but surely, toward the exit? Literally unknown before January 14, 2011, in Tunisia, which he left as a child, Riahi returned there a few weeks after the fall of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime in 2011. At the young age of 39 (in 2011), he was introduced as ‘a golden boy’ who made a fortune abroad — in Libya and the United Kingdom, according to his official biography — and he was eager to contribute to the development of his country of origin.
He then announced the creation of several companies active in various sectors (such as industry, agriculture and real estate), grouped later into a conglomerate, Tunisia Holding. Soon after, the young boss demonstrated that he had political ambitions as well. A few months after his return to Tunisia, Riahi founded the Free Patriotic Union ahead of the elections of October 23, 2011. A preparation of only five months before the poll proved insufficient for the UPL to show a good result. Coming in at 12th place, Riahi’s party received little more than 55,000 votes, only 0.56 percent of the total, and a single deputy seat.
Garnering mass support
Learning from this bitter failure, he vowed to catch up in the next election and started putting together the means to do so. Strengthened by the jackpot transferred to Tunisia — amounting to nearly €200 million — the businessman decided to take a shortcut to boost his popularity and that of his political party by buying a football team, the safest and fastest way to gain the support of the working classes.
The president of the UPL then set his sights on the African Club, the most popular club in the capital, with Espérance Sports Tunis. To this dynamic mobilization weapon of sports, Riahi added another equally effective measure to mobilize crowds and win mass support — the media. After expressing interest in 2012 in Dar Assabah, one of the oldest and most important press groups in the country (confiscated from Sakher el-Materi, son-in-law of former President Ben Ali), but without taking it to its logical conclusion, the businessman bought the frequencies of the television station Attounissia in April 2013.
But because of problems erupting between the transferor and a former foreign owner of the Attounissia frequencies on the one hand and the legal battle that its founder Sami Fehri dished out at him on the other, Riahi could never take effective control of the television channel.
However, all this did not prevent the UPL — which hadn’t even existed three years ago on the political spectrum —from coming third in the legislative elections of November 2014 and obtaining 16 seats of deputies in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP), slightly ahead of the Front Popular (15 deputies), but far behind Nidaa Tounes (86) and Ennahdha (69). It was an encouraging start for a new party
Thus, it was quite natural that the third political force of the country was integrated into the coalition government then formed and led by Habib Essid, in which it holds three portfolios: State Domains and Land Affairs, Youth and Sport, Environment and Sustainable Development.
It was not surprising, given the ideological proximity — the UPL is, like Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha, a conservative force — that its leader Riahi was one of the main forces who facilitated and organized the meeting of August 15, 2013, in Paris, which opened the way to the historic compromise between veteran Tunisian politician and current president Béji Caïd Essebsi and Tunisian politician and thinker Rached Ghannouchi.
Undoubtedly, Riahi was then at the peak of his influence and power — which perhaps eventually made him lose his sense of reality and provoked the vertiginous fall he is experiencing today, a fact that can hardly be ruled out. In any case, his political behavior since the day after the elections at the end of 2014 only serves to encourage this line of thought further.
Over the past three years, the leader of the UPL has indeed made the mistake — probably fatal — of pretending to treat himself as an equal of the two most prominent Tunisian politicians, President Béji Caïd Essebsi and the leader of Ennahdha, Rached Ghannouchi. And it was hard for these leaders to let this pass easily. The history of their relationship with Riahi, since 2014 in particular, is a long succession of clashes, acrimonious confrontations and brief reconciliations. Over the next several months, far from improving, the relations between the President of the Republic and Riahi stretched to a breaking point.
The fall begins
The rupture was completed in two stages. The first was when, on May 16, 2016, the UPL announced its exit from the government coalition, despite an attempted mediation by the president of Ennahdha. The second was when, on January 18, 2017, Riahi provocatively urged the President of the Republic to call for early presidential elections, construed by many as his admission to having failed in the mission for which he had been elected three years earlier.
However, some of the main leaders of the UPL had understood this impending downfall and opted to switch parties before Riahi’s final swipe against the head of state. For example, Hatem el-Euch, State and Land Affairs Minister, and Mohsen Hassen, Commerce Minister in the Essid government, walked out of Riahi’s party in August and December 2016, respectively.
However, a reconciliation appeared possible between Palace of Carthage (the presidential palace of Tunisia and the seat of the President) and the president of the UPL when the latter agreed to encourage his parliamentary group to vote in favor of the law of administrative reconciliation, voted by the ARP on September 13, 2017. In return, he received an audience with Essebsi six days later, for the first time in a year.
Did the businessman expect this meeting to end with all of his legal troubles eroding? It may have been possible, but the opposite happened. Just 24 hours after his meeting with Essebsi, Riahi was banned from leaving the country.
His ordeal may not be over yet. He also gave up the reins of prestigious African Club and on October 2, 2017, Yosra Mili, a member of the UPL Political Bureau, announced the holding of the party’s first congress in mid-December and the appointment at a very short notice of a general coordinator — a newly created post. Its holder will inherit most of the prerogatives of the party’s founder Riahi. Therefore, it appears Riahi’s troubles are far from over and it will be of great interest for the Middle East and North Africa region to witness how the upcoming months unfold for this charismatic leader.