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Tunisian leader sparks outrage by claiming ‘Zionist movement’ behind naming storm that hit Libya

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Tunisian leader Kais Saied claimed the “Zionist movement” was behind the designation of Storm Daniel, which caused massive flooding that killed thousands in Libya last week, sparking outrage and accusations of anti-Semitism.

“Has no one wondered why it was called that?” Who is Daniel? He’s a Hebrew prophet,” the 65-year-old president said in a nearly hour-long monologue during a cabinet meeting on Monday. “Why did they name the storm Daniel? Because the Zionist movement has penetrated, arrived at the heart of the mind and thought… From Abraham to Daniel, it is clear.

Swathes of the Mediterranean region were hit by Storm Daniel this month. The storm was the result of a very powerful low pressure system that became a “medicine” – a relatively rare type of storm with characteristics similar to hurricanes and typhoons and which can cause dangerous rainfall and flooding.

The storm was named Daniel by national weather services in southeastern Europe and formed on September 5, affecting Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and finally Libya – which saw the worst devastation and the greatest number of deaths.

Storm names are chosen from a list compiled by the United Nations World Meteorological Organization committee. The names are often listed alphabetically and vary by region because they are expected to be familiar to residents of each affected area.

The president’s comments sparked outrage on social media. Some called his speech an ill-informed diatribe, pointing out that the biblical character Daniel is also revered as a prophet by Muslims.

Others denounced Saied’s comments as anti-Semitic.

Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East politics at New York University in Abu Dhabi who focuses on Tunisia, said Saied’s comments were part of a pattern of “scapegoating and victimization » different groups, including black migrants and members of the opposition.

At the cabinet meeting, Saied said his “problem is not with the Jews” but with the “international Zionist movement.”

Tunisia is home to between 1,500 and 2,000 Jews, compared to nearly 100,000 in the 1940s, according to Minority Rights Group International. About a third of Tunisian Jews live in the capital Tunis, while the rest are on Djerba, an island off the country’s coast.

A deadly attack on the synagogue on the island of Djerba earlier this year led Saied to promise the safety of all Jews in the country.

The president is no stranger to controversy and has been accused of peddling racism in the past. This year, Saied denounced the incompatibility of black African “values” with those of Tunisians, claiming that his grandfather “bought and sold them”. He also said that black migration to the country was a plot to change the racial makeup of the country.

Saied embarked on a major power grab in 2021, overthrowing the government, dissolving parliament and deciding to rule by decree. Last year he pushed through a new constitution that only consolidated his one-man rule.

In his speech, Saied also denied being racist towards Africans, saying “we are proud to be African.” He attributed the accusations of racism against him to “belonging to the international Zionist movement”.

He also attacked normalization deals made with Israel by other Arab countries, calling them “high treason.”

Marks said Tunisia’s declining Jewish community is alarmed by the conspiratorial rhetoric of Saied, who she said represents an “extreme Arab nationalist minority.” His comments, she said, sharpen anti-Semitic discourse “in new and dangerous ways.”