Tunisia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Rafik Abdessalem has been caught in the middle of a controversy in which he is suspected of misusing public money and having an extramarital affair.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Abdessalem himself have roundly denied such accusations in public statements.
The ongoing controversy started on December 26 when Tunisian journalist and blogger Olfa Riahi posted on her blog a series of receipts showing that the minister had spent several nights at the upscale Sheraton hotel, which is located near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The initials of a woman was also included in the receipts, which led to speculation over the nature of her relationship with the minister.
In an interview with Tunisian radio Mosaique FM, Abdessalem admitted to the veracity of the hotel receipts made known by Riahi but asserted that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not pay “one dime more” than the amount that concerned the scope of his work.
The ministry stood by its minister and released a communiqué on Saturday, December 29, in which it stated that the payment for Abdessalem’s stay at the Sheraton complied with all standard accounting procedures set by the ministry.
“This is customary when I stay over to work in the early morning or late at night,” said the minister in the interview.
“Sometimes, I finish work at 11 p.m. or midnight, so I’m obliged every once in a while to stay at the Sheraton hotel for a few days.”
In another interview on state television, Abdessalem justified his multiple stays at the Sheraton on the grounds that he does not own a house in the capital near his office.
The minister also confirmed the existence of the woman included in the billing information provided by Riahi. He specified in the interview with Mosaique FM that she was “a family cousin” and that no public money was spent for her stay at the Sheraton.
“The rumor spread about a mistress… is laughable,” he said in the same radio interview.
On Saturday, lawyer Fathi Laayouni declared to Mosaique FM that he was charged by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bring suit against Riahi for damaging its reputation and that of other state institutions based on false information. Laayouni added that he would file a complaint against the Sheraton hotel as well for its alleged role in the dissemination of the billing information released by Riahi.
The following day, Riahi called on authorities to open an investigation into the controversy over whether public money was misappropriated for Abdessalem’s stay at the Sheraton, which she has called ‘Sheraton Gate.’ She gave authorities the date of January 7 as a deadline or else she intends to file a lawsuit of her own against the attorney general.
In the midst of the growing controversy, other politicians have expressed their condemnation of any form of public money embezzlement. Secretary General of the Congress for the Republic party Mohamed Abbou spoke on Mosaique FM and demanded on behalf of his party that those found guilty of financial embezzlement be removed from their positions and subsequently held accountable.
Roua Seghaier contributed reporting