|The Free Patriotic Union political group, created by wealthy Tunisians, is accused of using photos of sick and wounded Tunisians for political gain [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]
The Free Patriotic Union (UPL by its French acronym) was created by a group of Tunisian businessmen who have lived abroad for years without any involvement in politics.
What it lacks in history, the UPL compensates for in exposure. The UPL has resources that few of Tunisia's longstanding opposition parties can match. It has outspent every other party in advertising. Its extensive resources have been used to run a campaign reaching out to the country's most marginalised areas, promising investment and job opportunities.
It is now being accused of exploiting the stories and photographs of sick and wounded Tunisians for its own political benefit.
Loujain Ghazouani is a three year old with a serious tumour. She first became sick in June, and now the tumour is attacking her spine.
She is undergoing chemotherapy to threat the tumour, but doctors have warned that without an operation, chances are high that the cancer will spread to her bones.
Her parents Neila and Nejib are desperate to save their daughter, but the operation must be performed overseas. It will cost $40,000, well beyond their means.
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They were approached by Nour Chaine, a woman working for Riahi, in early September, who promised them that the generous businessman would take care of everything.
“She came to our home and said Slim Riahi would take care of everything,” Neila Ghazouani says.
She also took photos of Loujain, but promised her mother they would never be used for political propaganda.
Neila, who does not have access to the internet, did not realise that the photos where posted on the UPL’s website and Facebook page.
Riahi’s team booked Loujain in for a consultation at the Gustave Roussy Cancerology Institute in Paris for October 12. Chaine took Neila and Loujain’s passports to apply for French visas.
On October 6, less than a week before the operation, Imed Belkacem, one of the cofounders of the UPL, came to tell the family that they would have to cover the cost of the operation themselves.
Riahi would pay for the flights and hotel, Belkacem said, but not for the id="mce_marker"40,000 operation.
Riahi told Al Jazeera that he had never promised to cover the cost of the operation and that he believed there had been political manipulation in Ghazouani’s case.
“It’s not true. I’m start[ing] to believe it’s a dirty game now,” he said.
Mohammed Jendoubi was one of hundreds of protesters who were shot by Tunisian security forces in the last days of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime.
The Jendoubi family lives in Ariana. An hour before Ben Ali gave his final speech to the nation, on January 13, Mohammed Jendoubi was demonstrating nearby, in the poor suburb of El Kram.
“I went out on the streets like many other Tunisians, for freedom,” he says.
|Mohammed Jendoubi was among hundreds of protesters shot by security forces [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]
The bullet pierced his right side, and became lodged in his spine. With an operation to remove it and proper therapy,
there is a good chance he could walk again.
The longer the operation is delayed, the less chance Mohammed has of recovering the movement in the lower part of his body.
Even covering the costs of basic healthcare is a battle for his father, Mouldi, who is supporting the whole family on his retirement benefit of $560.
He’s already scrapped together $2100, and borrowed $2800 from friends and family, to cover hospital fees. He doesn’t know where he’s going to get the money to cover medicine for his son, let alone the vital operation.
“I can’t just leave my son to die, I need money to save my child,” Mouldi says.
The family thought its prayers were answered when a representative of the UPL paid a visit in September, promising that Slim Riahi would find a leading international surgeon to perform the operation. In the meantime, the UPL official told the family, Riahi would send a helicopter to move Mohammed to a private hospital with decent facilities.
Riahi’s aides told the family to apply for passports, which they did.
In late September, Mohammed Jendoubi’s mother gave an interview on national television about her son’s situation. She made no mention of Slim Riahi or the UPL.
The next day, Mohammed received a text message from Riahi’s employee:
“We’re the ones supporting you, call us and mention us in the media”.
After that, Riahi’s team made no more contact with the Jendoubi family.
“Why did they give us false hope?” Mouldi says.
You can follow Yasmine on Twitter at @yasmineryan