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George Joffe

Did he jump, or was he pushed?

Saidi's death has sparked a series of conspiracy theories [Facebook]

Date of publication: 22 July, 2015

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Comment: An air of mystery shrouds the death of Houssem Saidi, a Tunisian journalist and blogger found dead in Algiers.

On July 16, the Algerian police reported the death of a Tunisian journalist and political activist, Houssem Saidi, in Algiers.

He had been found that evening at the foot of a bridge near the local administration building in the centre of the city, barely alive. He died on the way to hospital.

His death was later confirmed by the Tunisian ministry of foreign affairs, who also claimed that the Algerian authorities believed his death was a case of suicide - to the surprise of his many friends and his family who had believed that he had been pushed off the bridge.

Suspicious circumstances?

The Algerian police explained that their conclusion was based on the fact that the area in which Houssem Saidi had died was very heavily policed - such that a murder would have been extremely difficult to carry out, although they agreed that no final decision could be made until a post mortem examination had been carried out.

Members of Saidi's family, however, claimed that, when they had first been notified of his death by the Algerian authorities, they had specifically been told that he had been pushed off the bridge.

In addition to this confusion, there were other peculiar aspects surrounding Saidi's death.

The scene of Saidi's death
['Who killed Houssem Saidi' Facebook group]



He had apparently left Tunis in a rush after claiming to have received a death threat at the end of May. Then, 24 hours before his death, he called his mother.

"They have found me," he reportedly told her - although he did not explain who "they" were, or that he feared violence.


His father later suggested that his son had had "psychological problems", according to the spokesman for the Tunisian foreign ministry, Mokhtar Chaouachi, although he did not elaborate on what they may have been.

The claim was subsequently rubbished by Houssem Saidi's cousin, Mohamed Amine Hajjem, who claimed Saidi's father had said no such thing.

Media sources, however, claimed that Saidi had gone to Algiers in pursuit of a story connected with the end of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia in mid-January 2011.

They suggested that he had been following up claims of a "foreign role" in the events that led to Ben Ali's flight into exile of January 14, 2011 but, once again, there were - infuriatingly enough - no other details.

     Saidi apparently left Tunis in a rush after claiming to have received a death threat at the end of May


Social media in Tunisia has certainly been sympathetic to such an explanation - and commenters have been intensely suspicious of official claims over his death, for he had been a well-known blogger in Tunisia and the president of the International Students Association of Economics and Commerce.

Within hours of the announcement of his death, a new page, named "Who killed Houssem Saidi?" appeared on Facebook - and quickly filled with thousands of comments critical of the Tunisian authorities for having ignored his claims of threats against him and for so hastily accepting the explanation of his death as suicide.

Houssem Saidi's father and his cousin immediately travelled to Algiers when they heard the news of his death to arrange for the repatriation of his body and of his personal effects.

Yet, on arrival, they discovered that all his personal possessions, such as his mobile telephone and his laptop, had disappeared from his hotel room, in a well-known hotel in the centre of Algiers.

Read more by George Joffe: "Buddying up to Bouteflika"



There were other unanswered questions. If he had been undertaking an investigation, who was paying for it and who was it for? Nobody has come forward to answer such questions, so an air of mystery over the affair continues to linger.

Explanations

Incidents like this, of course, seem almost designed to promote dark suspicions of official cover-ups and conspiracy theories.

Yet the course of events surrounding Houssem Saidi's death does seem curiously incomplete, particularly if the official explanation of suicide is dismissed.

That would imply that the alternative postulation - that Saidi was investigating the departure of President Ben Ali - might elucidate what happened. But that theory, in turn, raises questions over which "foreign power" could have been involved, and what its motivations may have been.

     The course of events surrounding Houssem Saidi's death does seem curiously incomplete


One factor that was apparent at the time of Ben Ali's overthrow was that at least two governments were anxious to keep him in office.

The French government made its sympathies all-too-plain, offering the embattled Tunisian president crowd control equipment and even personnel support to resist the calls from Tunisians for his departure.

It only back-peddled just before January 14, 2011 - the day when Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali actually fled the country - when it realised how widespread the opposition to him had become.

The Algerian government, too, viewed his destitution with disfavour and alarm. It, in turn, was subsequently accused by Tunisia's revolutionary government of deliberately fomenting disorder in the new state that had emerged.

Leila Trabulsi, the former president's wife, has always claimed that there was a coup against her husband, blaming the head of presidential security at the time, General Ali Seriati, for organising it.

The general, according to her, told the increasingly isolated leader to leave the country "for a few hours" while he suppressed the unrest - but then abandoned Ben Ali once he reached Jeddah.

The problem here, however, is that the general was arrested by the army immediately after the presidential plane left Tunis, and, in any case, was later found not guilty of conspiracy.

Yet, if Houssem Saidi had really found out something about the murky events surrounding the president's departure, those responsible might well want to have kept it quiet.

George Joffe is a research fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and visiting professor of geography at Kings College, London, specialising in the Middle East.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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