Tunisia is in a fresh political crisis. Yesterday, Head of Government (Prime Minister) Elyès Fakhfakh—who came to power just five months ago—resigned after weeks of rising tension in parliament. In this video Q&A POMED Advocacy Associate Louisa Keeler, editor of our Tunisia Update, speaks with analyst Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, in Tunis, about what happened, why, and what may be next in Tunisia.
[0:46] Louisa Keeler: To start off, give us some background. Who is Elyès Fakhfakh? How did he become prime minister?
Mohamed-Dhia Hammami: First of all, thank you for having me.
Elyès Fakhfakh was not a politician under Ben Ali. He was in the business sector, he was general manager of a well known family-owned business. Then, as soon as the revolution happened, he joined Ettakatol, the social democratic party that was founded by the former head of the [2011-2014] constituent assembly, Mustapha ben Jafar. [After the 2011 revolution] Fakhfakh was appointed initially as minister of tourism, because the group where he was working was in the tourism sector. But then, with the resignation of the minister of finance in the very first elected government, after the revolution, Fakhfakh became minister of finance and that is how he became a prominent figure in Tunisian politics. With the resignation of [Prime Minister Ali] Laarayedh’s government, the Troika government, in early 2014, Fakhfakh went back to the private sector and stayed there until very recently, when he was chosen by the current president, Kaïs Saïed, as head of government out of three candidates who were presented to him by recently elected political parties in the parliament. He was head of government since February 2020.
[2:47] And who ended up in his government? And who wasn’t in his government?
His government was formed after the 2019 elections. The party that had the highest number of seats [in parliament], the Islamist party Ennahda, was not able to get the prime minister they chose elected. So Fakhfakh was chosen by other political parties in the parliament, and he ended up working with them. So you found in the government ministers from Ennahda, Ettayyar Addimoqrati (Democratic Current), which is a centrist, social democratic party; you have some members of the parliament who are from a Nasserist or pan-Arabist party called Harakat Echaab; and several independent MPs; and you have members from the party [Nidaa Tounes] of the former prime minister, Youssef Chahed.
The ones who were not included were mainly people who were from the party of Qalb Tounes, founded by a well known business owner who was involved in some corruption scandals, Nabil Karoui, and so they didn’t include him deliberately because of the ongoing investigations on corruption and tax evasion, and a more conservative Islamist party, who is on the right of Ennahda, called Al Karama Coalition. These are the parties who were not included.
When it comes to the profiles of individuals who were included in the government, we find a variety of profiles. We find people who were involved in politics since the eighties in the opposition, and who were from political parties like Ennahda. For example, I mention Abdellatif Mekki, who was one of the competitors of [Rached] Ghannouchi within Ennahda. But we find also technocrats who don’t have any experience in politics, who are in the business sector, like the current minister of finance, who was in a consulting firm in France and is a good friend of Elyès Fakhfakh. So it is a pretty diverse government. It is not a purely technocratic government, and it is not a political government, because there are strategic positions in the government held by technocrats. But overall, we can say that the biggest characteristic of this government is that it was very diverse, but at the same time, it lacked ideological and political coherence.
[5:38] Okay, thank you. So, with all of that in mind, what happened leading up to today’s resignation? What is the nature of the crisis, or crises, that forced the prime minister out after such a short time in power?
We can see this crisis from different angles. The most visible one is the story of conflict of interest that emerged four weeks ago during an interview on the occasion of one hundred days since [Fakhfakh’s] appointment. Fakhfakh was asked about a situation of conflict of interest. The journalist asked him about companies that he owns that are involved in business dealings with the state. At the time, Fakhfakh diminished the importance of this situation of conflict of interest. But then, there was a follow-up from independent MPs like Yassine Ayari who published on his Facebook page documents confirming the situation of conflict of interest. Starting from that point, there were investigations that were launched by the three branches of the government, by the financial-judicial pole, which is a court specialized in sophisticated forms of financial crimes, there was a parliamentary committee that was formed. And the executive itself has some investigative organs that started to form an investigation on these business dealings.
Officially, he resigned because of this, the situation of conflict of interest, and because of the pressure that the parties who disagree with him, like Ennahda, Qalb Tounes, and Al Karama, used on him. So today, President Saïed officially asked him to resign, almost at the same time as these parties that I just mentioned submitted a petition for a motion of censure against him. They collected 105 signatures [from MPs], and they need 109 signatures [to bring a motion of censure] to remove him.
However, I think this crisis has to do with other factors. Because we previously had ministers who were involved in corruption, or who were in a conflict of interest, but these kinds of questions were not raised. There are other reasons that drives Ennahda, for example specifically, to be somehow aggressive toward Elyès Fakhfakh. Like for example the way he was dismissive with some of their ministers in the government, he was not giving them a chance to participate in decision-making. There were at the same time problems of cohesion and coordination between parliament and the executive. So you would have sometimes parties who are represented in the government who don’t vote in favor of laws that were passed by the government. So Ennahda would have to work with parties who were supposed to be in the opposition, like Qalb Tounes, to get their votes, to pass some laws—it happened twice.
And more important [is] the fact that the parliament, for the first time since 2011, has been discussing very controversial motions, political motions–like for example, the classification of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. And you had parties like Harakat Echaab and some members of Ettayar who were not against the discussion of this motion in the plenary session. That is something that Ennahda did not like at all. And you had at the same time discussions about the removal of Ghannouchi from his position as head [speaker] of the parliament, that was backed by parties that were supposed to be in coalition with Ennahda. So these purely ideological problems made the crisis even deeper. It’s not about some technical issues that they can discuss rationally, it became much more difficult to control it. And so it has been presented mainly as a legal problem, of conflict of interest, but there is much more depth to it than what it seems.
[10:13] That’s very interesting. Two of the big players in this saga are the Ennahda Party and President Kaïs Saïed. How do each of them fit into this picture, what is their role? Are there other key players who have important roles in what’s going on right now?
So, like I said, Ennahda is the largest party in the parliament with more than fifty seats out of 217 seats. It doesn’t have the majority, but it is still the most important party. Normally, as a party included in the government, they expect their members to be more involved in decision making, which was not the case. Also, these issues that I mentioned about the classification of the Muslim Brotherhood as an international terrorist organization, something that was not accepted by Ennahda. So it created a problem of trust between, not necessarily Elyès Fakhfakh himself and Ennahda, but [with] parties represented in the Elyès Fakhfakh government. And Fakhfakh refused to dismiss the ministers from these parties, from Haraket Ecchab for example, and replace them [with] ministers from Qalb Tounes. By doing that, he went into a kind of public confrontation with Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the [Ennahda] party, and with the party itself. So, there is this main problem of Ennahda being a big party that did not accept the authority or the political decisions of the prime minister.
At the same time, you have tensions between the president and Ghannouchi, because of different geopolitical issues and Rached Ghannounchi trying to get involved in international affairs, which is, according to the constitution of 2014, the exclusive prerogative of the president. So that is why we start [seeing] Kaïs Saïed somehow disagreeing with the way Ennahda wanted to dismiss Fakhfakh. But at the end, he ended up putting pressure on him and asking him to resign. And by doing that, by avoiding a parliamentary censure motion, Kaïs Saïed was able to preserve himself in a position of power, so he is the one who will be able to choose the next prime minister.
You asked me also about other key players. I think UGTT [the Tunisian General Labor Union], as usual, is a very important key player in this situation. We saw Kaïs Saïed consulting with the head of UGTT several times, and in videos that were published by the presidency we saw the head of UGTT sitting next to Kaïs Saïed when he announced certain decisions. So despite the fact that they seem on the same line, as opposed to Ennahda, there are tensions between UGTT and Fakhfakh. Like I mentioned, Fakhfakh is officially out of the Social Democratic Party [Ettakatol], but his economic policies don’t match with the orientations of UGTT. They were not even able to negotiate, for example, salary increases or protection of rights of workers in the public health sector and so there are several questions…. And Fakhfakh, his personality is strong, so he was not willing to make concessions with UGTT, to the extent that UGTT ended up calling for new elections. UGTT saw that there was a deadlock and that they cannot work with this government at all, so they ended up calling for some radical solutions like new elections and a total change of both the parliament and the government.
[14:35] Thank you. We will have to keep an eye out for what all of these people do next. Now that the head of government has resigned, walk us through what the constitution says happens next—and what you expect to happen politically. Are there possible successors waiting in the wings?
Let me start with the last question. Right now, it’s still early to talk about successors. There are some rumors, but usually rumors that come early are not reliable, so there is no reason why we would mention them.
I will go now directly to your question about what is going to happen next according to the constitution. So, according to the constitution, like I mentioned, the president, Kaïs Saïed, is the one who is in charge of the designation of a potential prime minister who has to be approved by the parliament. This is according to Article 98 of the constitution. However, this article sends us to another article, article 89. According to this, the parliament has to approve the decision of the president and confirm the appointment of the new prime minister chosen by the president. Otherwise, if they do not do that within a legally defined deadline, there is a risk of dissolution of the parliament and new elections. The problem, however, is that the resignation of Elyès Fakhfakh came very early, less than five months [after he took office]. According to the constitution, the parliament cannot be dissolved within the six months that follow the approval of the new government. [Ed. note: parliament approved Fakhfakh’s government on February 27.] So we will see some legal discussions during the next few days and weeks about what is going to happen exactly. But what we should focus on is mainly Kaïs Saïed’s decision, because he is the one who will have to choose the next prime minister
[16:50] We will keep an eye out for that. But there is something else we should talk about. This crisis is at the level of Tunisian elite politics, but we also see a lot of discontent at the popular level. Socio-economic protests are on the rise, especially in Tunisia’s interior. How can Tunisia address popular demands for socio-economic justice and opportunity with this type of political instability at the national level, and a sense among many that these political games of musical chairs are irrelevant to the concerns of average people?
Exactly. So we have been seeing recently a new wave of protests in the interior regions and cities–but not only in the interior regions, even in Tunis. The most important one is the return of the sit-in in el Kamour [in southern Tunisia] and the potential blockage of the gas pipeline by protestors from the governorate of Tataouine who are asking for more investment in the region and more…in the economy.
The issue, however, is that the political parties don’t necessarily have in their mind a solution to these problems because they are trying to manage their ongoing affairs, to find a way to mobilize resources for the budgets, living day per day, year by year, instead of trying to prepare plans for the upcoming years and think in a more strategic, long-run way. There is definitely a [popular] disconnect and discontent with from the political elites that we can see in opinion polls. Recently, last week, there was a poll that showed that more than 60 percent of Tunisians don’t know for whom they are going to vote in the next elections. The next elections won’t happen for almost five years, but still 60 percent is a very high percentage. In the last election, we already saw a decrease of the voter turnout in comparison with, let’s say, the 2011 elections. At the local level also, same thing, the municipalities, there was much more discontent.
So we are seeing, definitely, a power crisis, a disconnection of elites from the grassroots movement. Even the dialogue is not there and that is what makes Tunisian politics right now very unpredictable. We can’t see where things are going and we are definitely in the situation of systematic crisis where both the economic model that has been adapted for years is no longer viable and the elite is not ready to present something else.
[20:06] There’s also a global pandemic and an ongoing economic crisis that Tunisia has been trying to address for years now. How might these latest political developments affect the country’s approach to these challenges? Are there other issues we should be concerned about as Tunisia weathers the coming months?
Comparatively with other countries in the region, in the mediterranean, Tunisia has been doing well in terms of containment of the virus because of the strict measures that were taken early in March.
However, recently, the government decided to start opening the border progressively, expecting tourists to come. However, people who are familiar with the Tunisian economy know that it is really difficult to expect the summer tourism season to be successful. How to explain that? There are some people who are mentioning the connection that the tourism sector has with the government. The minister of tourism, himself, is coming from the private sector. So here, there is a question of prioritization of certain interests over the public health issues. The government, to be more specific the minister of health who was just dismissed today after the resignation of the government and replaced by someone else, he said that the second wave [of the pandemic] is almost inevitable and we should expect this in August, which is, for me, the result of a decision that was not taken rationally. The loss of life that we might have if we keep opening the borders after containing the virus might be a not great idea. So we will see how things go in the fall.
[22:20] Thank you so much, Mohamed-Dhia, for taking the time to talk and help us better understand what’s going on in Tunisia. You can find Mohamed-Dhia’s Tunisia insights on Twitter @MedDhiaH. To follow upcoming developments, visit our website, www.pomed.org, and sign up for POMED’s twice-weekly Tunisia Update.
Thanks to all for watching.
Photo credit: Elyès Fakhfakh Official Facebook Page