Tunisia - Hiccups in the Polity
TC’s foreign affairs primer
Tunisia has a new Prime Minister and Cabinet after a year of political hiccups. The Parliamentary elections in October 2019 had brought the Ennahda party as the largest in the House. Shunning established political figures the people had voted in an independent, Kais Said, as the new President in the final round of the Presidential elections in November 2019.
Ennahdha with its status as the largest party in Parliament had exercised its right to name the Prime Minister and had chosen Habib Jemil. Despite his assertions that the government would focus on reforming the economy and restoring hope among the youth, he lost the vote of confidence when he presented his cabinet.
The next few months were marked by political jockeying. The President exercising his 10 days prerogative had named Elyes Fakhfakh, a former tourism and finance minister, to become Prime Minister and form the government. The initial cabinet list prepared by Fakhfakh was rejected by Ennahda but subsequent negotiations enable him to secure the party’s support and he won the vote of confidence with a decent margin.
He did not last long. Taking office in February 2020 he resigned in September 2020. In the interim an independent member of parliament published documents indicating that the prime minister owned shares in companies that had won deals worth 44 million dinars ($15m) from the state. A judge had opened an investigation, and the anti-corruption minister had assigned a public watchdog to look into the issue and report back. Fakhfakh was left with o option but to resign as Ennahdha backed by the President, demanded he demit office.
The period was also marked by pressure on Ennahdha. Five Tunisian parties had planned to launch a vote of no confidence in parliamentary speaker Rached Ghannouchi of the Ennahdha who had been accused of partisanship and being incompetent. The Free Constitutional party led by Abir Moussi, a supporter of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had accused Ghannouchi of serving the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda and foreign allies, including Turkey and Qatar. Among those backing the no confidence move were the Tahya Tounes, Attayar, Chaab and Reform parties, which were in the coalition with Ennahdha. But the Speaker survived the vote.
The Prime Ministership had now gone to Hichem Mechichi, a political independent, and a lawyer by training. He had compiled a cabinet list which included udges, academics, public servants and business executives. Tunisia’s Parliament was deeply divided and many lawmakers were angry that Mechichi bypassed the main political factions in building his cabinet.
Despite initial reservations, Ennhadha, which wanted a political government representing all factions in Parliament, ended up supporting Mechichi citing the difficult situation that Tunisia was passing through. This helped the PM to win the vote of confidence for a government fashioned to have 25 ministers and three secretaries of state that included seven women and a blind man.
Outlining his priorities the new PM said that his government would enact policies critical to revitalising a tourism-reliant sluggish economy that had been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. He had brought the ministries of finance, investment and economy under one umbrella under the leadership of liberal economist Ali Kooli, chief executive of the Arab Banking Corporation in Tunisia. He had held meetings with representatives of political parties and parliamentary blocs, "to mobilise support and assistance for the government's efforts in the path of rescue and reform."
It remained to be seen whether the disenchantment with the polity and economy that had marked the protests last year would subside under the new government. Already Secretary General of the People's Republican Union (UPR) Lotfi Mraihi had called for the formation of a parliamentary committee of inquiry to hear those who were in charge of the coronavirus crisis and had failed to deliver. Mraihi said that the lockdown, which he had opposed had cost the state 42 billion dinars, or the entire budget of the Tunisian state and caused the dismissal of more than 400 thousand workers.
Tunisia's Youth Movement (MJT) staged a rally in front of the Municipal Theatre in Tunis, demanding the dissolution of Parliament and new legislative elections accusing Ennahdha of creating "a climate of insecurity which favoured the continuity of terrorism."
Those who had lost family members during the protests had warned that the new government's contested appointments and unclear positions on transitional justice had put the transitional justice process at risk and that they had collected to defend the rights of “ the heroes of the Revolution”
On the economic front the coronavirus crisis had caused the tourism dependent economy to shrink by 21.6% in the second quarter of 2020, compared with the same period last year. High public debt; deteriorating public services; and political uncertainty had hampered efforts to improve the situation with the youth particularly affected.
Tunisia was witnessing an exodus of entire families after the advent of the coronavirus and not just the migration of jobless people who, in the past, would cross over to Italy and Sicily for employment. In the current year reports said nearly 10000 had left the country -far more than in the past.
Like many governments around the world, the Tunisian government was also trying to control the coronavirus narrative. The net effect, as in many other countries, was a crackdown on the media. he Monitoring unit of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) reported that 13 journalists (3 men and 10 women), working in 10 public and private media, had been attacked. In a report prepared with UNESCO the unit had warned against even more violence on the web and social media.
In the heyday of Islamic State hundreds of Tunisians were reported to have traveled to Iraq, Syria or Libya in recent years to join the group. Now also there was some concern that Islamic State cells were present in the country with the return of jihadis from Syria, Iraq and Libya. Recently suspected militants had attacked two police officers, killing one, in the coastal city of Sousse where, five years ago and Islamic State militant had shot dead 39 foreigners on a beach triggering an exodus of tourists and severely damaging the economy.
On the foreign front the situation in Libya continued to be of concern. The Tunisian authorities remained concerned that the ongoing violence there could have a spillover effect and the Tunisian government along with Algeria had been calling for an end to foreign intervention in Libya and a political solution.
Another issue that had created debate was seeking an apology from France for crimes committed during its colonial occupation of Tunisia from 1881 to 1956 with the last French soldiers leaving only in 1963. The move had been spurred on by the police killing of George Floyd in the USA. It was rejected in Parliament in order to prevent any harm to relations with Tunisia’s biggest trading partner and investor with one million Tunisians living in France. though proponents of the move argued that an apology was necessary to put bilateral relations on a more equal footing.
So what next? The last PM lasted five months when Globalist had questioned “ Will the present government be able to deliver?..” Repeating the words of the last article on Tunisia seems most appropriate with the new PM in office for just about a month. Tunisia needs to borrow about $3 billion internationally in 2020 to meet spending commitments. This has to be coupled with a reform programme that does not create unnecessary hardship for the people.
The challenge to Tunisia’s democracy lies in fashioning a polity that demonstrates its ability and willingness to meet the aspirations of the youth who comprise 60 percent of the population. But undoing the economic, social and health devastation caused by the coronavirus is perhaps going to the biggest challenge.