TUNIS: Media mogul Nabil Karoui, just released after more than a month behind bars for money laundering, is a controversial figure pushing to win Tunisia’s presidential runoff.
The flamboyant 56-year-old business tycoon presents himself as a candidate for the poor but spent much of his campaign imprisoned on money laundering and tax evasion charges.
Karoui came second in the September 15 first round of presidential polls despite him being in prison, and his Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia) party came in second in last Sunday’s parliamentary polls.
This Sunday he will face off against frontrunner and conservative law professor Kais Saied in the final vote.
Karoui made the pledge Thursday, a day after Tunisia’s Court of Cassation ordered his release from jail where he had been detained since August.
The popularity of Karoui, who always appears in designer suits, stems largely from his media empire and philanthropic activity.
A former executive for Colgate-Palmolive, in 2002 Karoui launched a media agency with his brother.
After the 2011 uprising, the Nessma channel he founded turned from entertainment programming towards news, becoming one of the largest private broadcasters in the country.
Over the past three years, Karoui burnished his reputation with a charity show on Nessma in which he distributed household appliances to needy families.
The show, “Khalil Tounes”, is dedicated to the memory of Karoui’s son, who died in a car crash in 2016.
On the programme, Karoui travelled the country listening to the grievances of ordinary people: something nearly unprecedented for a Tunisian politician.
“The direct contact with people really touched me, and it was at the start of the year that I decided to run in the elections,” he told AFP via his lawyer.
Karoui is a shrewd politician, according to Alaa Talbi, president of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.
“The man knows what he is doing, he has seen that via television and philanthropy he can enter into every marginalised home,” Talbi said.
Indictment and jail
Karoui has faced multiple legal battles in recent years, and accuses the government of politicising the judiciary against him.
In July, he was indicted on tax evasion and money laundering charges stemming from a 2017 investigation.
His assets were frozen and a travel ban imposed.
Karoui appealed but the court instead ordered him and his brother placed in pre-trial detention.
Prosecutors consider charges against Karoui “solid”, but his arrest on August 23 - 10 days before the start of campaigning - sparked accusations that his arrest was politically inspired.
A judicial source said it was rare for the indictment chamber to order pre-trial detention.
“This preventive detention decision... shows the politicisation of the case,” the source said.
But a judicial officer told AFP that given the serious nature of the charges, Karoui “should have been imprisoned from the beginning”.
Several earlier requests for Karoui’s release to campaign fairly were rejected by the courts. While now free, he remains under investigation, one of his lawyers said.
During his detention, Karoui’s wife Salwa Smaoui took a leave of absence from her job with Microsoft to campaign on his behalf.
An international lobbying firm has also been reported to be working on Karoui’s behalf.
The US Justice Department published a copy of a $1 million contract with Canada-based Dickens and Maddison to promote Karoui’s candidacy overseas.
The one-year contract, dated August 19, far exceeds Tunisia’s limits on campaign spending.
His party denied any links to the contract, claiming those behind it sought to “tarnish his reputation and influence voters”.
When opponent Saied announced last weekend he was quitting campaigning to avoid an unfair advantage, he took aim at Karoui’s deep pockets, saying “equal opportunities must also include the means available to both candidates”.
Karoui portrays himself as a “modernist liberal” and has promised to implement neoliberal economic policies.
“My programme is the total opening of the economy with the reforms necessary to attract foreign investment,” he said.