TUNIS: Tunisia’s 92-year-old president, Beji Caid Essebsi, a major player in the country’s transition to democracy since 2011, was taken to a military hospital on Thursday after suffering a “severe health crisis”, the presidency said.
One of Essebsi’s advisers told Reuters he was in a “very critical” condition but was alive.
Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said on Facebook that Essebsi was receiving the attention he needed and that people should stop spreading fake news about his condition, after some reports said the president had died.
The elderly head of state was hospitalised last week as well, for what the presidency described as non-serious treatment.
Essebsi has been a prominent figure in Tunisia since the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, which was followed by uprisings against autocratic leaders across the Middle East, including in nearby Libya and Egypt.
Tunisia set itself on a path to democracy without much of the violence seen elsewhere, although it has been the target of fighters over the years.
On Thursday, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in attacks on police in the capital Tunis, killing one officer and wounding several others, while militant attacks in 2015 left dozens of people dead and drove away foreign tourists and investors alike.
Government troops have been battling militant groups in remote areas near the border with Algeria, while high unemployment has also stoked unrest in recent years.
After the overthrow of Ben Ali, Essebsi led the immediate transition as prime minister in 2011. He was elected president three years later. Essebsi had also been a senior figure before 2011, having served as foreign minister under state founder Habib Bourguiba and parliamentary speaker under Ben Ali.
In June, he said he would not run for a second term in elections this year, despite his party calling for him to stand. The party has not identified another candidate yet.
Under a new constitution guaranteeing democratic freedoms, Essebsi has limited powers compared with Ben Ali, and he is mainly responsible for foreign and defence policies.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks.
Civil protection units and police rapidly deployed to Habib Bourguiba avenue, where the interior ministry is located.
People initially fled in panic, before some crowded around the scene of the attack, expressing anger against the authorities. Shops and offices were closed by police.
The twin attacks came ahead of presidential and legislative elections, scheduled for October and November.
In April Essebsi said he did not plan to stand for re-election in order to make way for someone younger.
Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings, has been hit by repeated attacks since the 2011 overthrow of Ben Ali.
On October 29, 2018 an unemployed graduate blew herself up near police cars on Habib Bourguiba, killing herself and wounding 26 people, mostly police officers, according to the interior ministry.
The Tunisian authorities said the suicide bomber had sworn allegiance to IS.
The attack was the first to rock the Tunisian capital for over three and a half years.
In March 2015, gunmen killed 21 tourists and a policeman at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis.
In June that year, 30 Britons were among 38 foreign holidaymakers killed in a gun and grenade attack on a beach resort near the Tunisian city of Sousse.
And in November 2015, a suicide bombing against a bus carrying presidential guards killed 12, in an attack claimed by IS.
The day-to-day business of government and economic policy is run by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, in office since 2016.
He is also the main contact person for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other donors which have kept Tunisia afloat amid its economic crisis.