Notes on Tunisia’s New National Unity Government

Raouia Briki – August 31, 2016

 

On August 26, Tunisia’s Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP), or Parliament, approved Youssef Chahed as prime minister and confirmed his new government with 167 votes in favor, 22 votes against, five abstentions, and 23 no-shows (out of 217 total members of parliament). The vote brought to power Tunisia’s seventh prime minister and eleventh cabinet since the 2011 revolution.

The New Government: A Nidaa Tounes Prime Minister, More Diverse

Chahed’s government has 26 ministers, an increase of one over the cabinet of former Prime Minister Habib Essid, and 14 state secretaries (who have ministerial rank but do not lead a ministry). Essid, who took office in February 2015, was ousted by the ARP in a July 31 no-confidence vote. While Essid was a technocrat with no party affiliation, Chahed is from the Nidaa Tounes Party and was hand-picked by President Beji Caid Essebsi, founder of the party. The new Prime Minister is a 40-year-old expert in agricultural policies who served briefly as Minister of Local Administration in the Essid government and reportedly is close to the President’s family, both through marriage and through his ties to the President’s son, Hafedh, who recently became head of Nidaa Tounes.

In pressing for Essid’s resignation, President Essebsi had called for a national unity government to tackle urgent economic and social problems, and the Chahed cabinet could be considered such a coalition. Its diverse representation includes ministers from Nidaa, the Islamist Ennahda Party, and Afek Tounes, as well as figures from the Left who were not in the previous government, such as Abid Briki, the new Minister of Governance and Public Functions, and Mohamed Trabelsi, the new Minister of Social Affairs. Both of these men had prominent roles in the UGTT labor union during the rule of autocratic president Zein el Abdine Ben Ali and are thought to remain close to the union today. Their presence in the cabinet is a change intended to build consensus on controversial labor and other economic reforms that so far have stalled.

The Ministers of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Interior, Tourism, and Education from Essid’s government kept their positions. Others from the Essid cabinet have been moved to different ministries, such as Samira Merai from Afek Tounes, who was formerly in charge of the Ministry of Women, Family, and Children, and who is now the Minister of Health. In a surprise choice, the new Finance Minister is Lamia Zribi, a former investment and bank official.

 

Ennahda: Three Ministers, New Faces

Ennahda, which came in second in the 2014 elections, is now represented by three ministers and three secretaries of state, an increase of three positions. Zied Ladhari, who used to be minister of Employment, is now Minister of Industry and Trade; the new Minister of Employment is Imed Hammami; Anwar Maarouf is Minister of Communication, Technologies, and Digital Economy; and the State Secretary of Employment is now Saida Ouinissi, who at 29 years old is the youngest member of the cabinet. The Secretary of State for Higher Education is Khalil Laamiri and the Secretary of State for Communication and Technology is Habib Dabbebi. Aside from Ouinissi, who has some prominence as the youngest member of Ennahda’s executive bureau and through her active presence on social media, the Ennahda ministers are relatively unknown figures, especially among young Tunisians.

 

Nidaa Tounes: Seven Ministers, as in the Previous Government

Nidaa Tounes held on to three ministries and kept four secretary of state positions. The Minister of Transport is Anis Ghdira; Salma Elloumi remains Minister of Tourism and Neji Jalloul remains Minister of Education. State Secretary of Trade is Faisal Hafiane; Imed Jebri is Secretary of State for Sports; Secretary of State for the Environment is Chokri Belhassen; and State Secretary of Immigration and Tunisians Abroad is Radouan Ayara. Most of these new ministers are not very well known either.

 

Smaller Parties; No UPL

The cabinet also includes five new ministers from smaller parties al-Joumhouri, al-Massar, the Democratic Alliance, the People’s Movement, and al-Moubadara (the party of Ben Ali-era foreign minister Kamel Morjane). It includes a number of ministers who are seen as close to Tunisia’s leading trade and business association UTICA, another crucial actor needed to build consensus on major economic and social reforms. The Free Patriotic Union (UPL), a center-right party that came in third in the 2014 elections, is a member of the governing parliamentary coalition but was not included in this cabinet. For reasons that remain unclear, UPL did not fare well in the negotiations, going from four ministries under Essid to none under Chahed.

 

A Fresh Look but Deeper Change Uncertain

The political diversity, the inclusion of eight women, and the young prime minister and other relatively young ministers give the Cabinet a fresh appearance, especially in contrast to the 67-year-old Essid and the 89-year-old President Essebsi. Yet, to many Tunisians the new government seems unlikely to deliver genuine change. Several ministers are familiar old-guard faces who served under Ben Ali, or who are otherwise seen as of the “same old crony power system that has not changed after the revolution.”

 

Chahed’s Priorities: Security, Economic Reforms, Anti-Corruption

In his address to the ARP before the vote on the new government, Chahed highlighted his commitment to fighting terrorism through strengthening the armed forces and pursuing preventive approaches, such as raising social awareness and advancing cultural and educational initiatives. This summer (compared to last year) has been marked by a relative calm with no major terrorist attacks. But on Monday, the new government’s first official day of business, armed terrorists, possibly from the Uqba Ibn Nafi Brigade, an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, attacked a military patrol at the base of Mount Semmama near Gasserine in central Tunisia, leaving three soldiers dead. On the night of August 31, a military operation in Gasserine uncovered terrorists and ammunition in a house in the city center and clashes throughout the night left two members of the armed group and one civilian dead.

Chahed announced fighting corruption as his number-two priority, through supporting the work of the anti-corruption commission, pushing for a whistle-blowers law, and advancing legislation surrounding the constitutional court. All of these reforms were sidelined or otherwise neglected during the Essid and previous governments.

The Prime Minister cautioned that his government will not tolerate irregular and “abusive” strikes—strikes have been a constant feature of post-2011 Tunisia—and warned that austerity measures could be implemented if economic benchmarks are not reached by 2017. How much UGTT and others in the labor movement will cooperate with the government on such issues, however, is uncertain. UGTT accepted the new government, but did not publicly comment on the inclusion of their assumed allies Briki or Trablesi. UGTT leader Houcine Abbassi announced in an August 27 statement that “since the launch of the President’s [National Unity government] initiative, the UGTT has been clear about its refusal to participate in any government, [although this] decision did not stop the UGTT from contributing to the formulation of the government’s program and its priorities. This contribution stems from the union’s belief in the necessity of its contribution to rescuing the country.”

 

Mixed Reactions from MPs

Some ARP members criticized Chahed’s speech. Samia Abbou from the Democratic Path, a center-left social democratic party, called on the Prime Minister to reduce the expenses of ministries if he is serious about economic recovery and to withdraw from Parliament the proposed economic reconciliation bill if he is serious about fighting corruption. The controversial bill was first brought to Parliament last summer with the strong backing of the President. It failed to advance due in part to strong opposition from civil society and others over its proposed fines and amnesty for public officials and state employees for acts related to financial corruption and misuse of public funds during the Ben Ali era. Last month, the bill resurfaced in Parliament. Opponents argue that economic crimes should be investigated and publicly aired through the existing Truth and Reconciliation commission, in order to send a clear message that the widespread corruption of the pre-revolution years will be punished and no longer be tolerated in post-2011 Tunisia. Supporters of the bill contend that the commission process is too slow and that Tunisia needs to resolve these cases expeditiously to attract urgently-needed new investment.

Sana Salhi from Nidaa Tounes called for more attention to the problems in the interior regions, where economic and social development lag behind Tunisia’s wealthier northern and coastal regions. Salhi’s comments were in reaction to Chahed’s silence on decentralization and the interior regions in his speech. From Ennahda, Mehrziya Laabidi declared that even if this government is one of unity, it is not safe from the ARP’s oversight. This opinion was shared by her colleague from Ennahda Ali Laarayedh, Tunisia’s interim prime minister in 2013-2014, who affirmed that the ARP will reinforce its role of executive oversight. Due to the Parliament’s lack of strong oversight of the government to date and other weaknesses, there is widespread disappointment among the Tunisian public about the performance of the ARP. According to a May 2016 poll by the International Republican Institute, only 11 percent of Tunisians had a favorable view of Parliament.

 

Cynicism Among Civil Society

Initial reactions to Chahed’s speech from activists and civil society leaders show dissatisfaction with the new government. Writing on Facebook, Amira Yahyaoui, founder of the parliamentary monitoring organization Al-Bawsala, described Chahed’s speech as “catastrophic” and stated that, “One day we will understand that this country cannot be governed by a communications firm, that being a prime minister is not a matter of using ‘Derja’ in his speeches [Tunisian dialect, to sound popular and informal] or speaking without notes [to show his comfort in public speaking, as compared to the stiff, formal Essid], and that slogans have no real impact without a vision.” Achraf Awadi, president of well-known watch-dog NGO I-Watch, told POMED that despite Chahed’s rhetoric, “There is a clear lack of vision about corruption. We don’t see any palpable mechanisms proper to fighting corruption introduced by this government. Appointing a controversial figure such as Abid Briki to lead the Ministry of Governance is already a bad start.”

Tunisians hope that Chahed’s government will succeed where others have failed in meeting fundamental social and economic demands of the revolution–employment and dignity. But after five difficult years, and so many dashed expectations, cynicism is pervasive.