On July 25, Tunisia’s President Kaïs Saïed nominated Hichem Mechichi as the next head of government (prime minister). Mechichi, who has been interior minister since February, is a senior public servant without a partisan affiliation. Born in 1974 in Bou Salem, in the northwestern region of Jendouba, and raised in the Tunis suburb of Ezzahra, Mechichi earned an undergraduate degree in law and master’s degrees in public administration from Tunisia’s National School of Administration and its French equivalent. After the 2011 revolution, he served on the National Commission to Investigate Corruption and Embezzlement and as a chief investigator in the National Anti-Corruption Authority, becoming one of Tunisia’s leading anti-corruption specialists. He later served as chief of staff in the ministry of women, family, and children; the ministry of transportation; and the ministry of social affairs. In February, Saïed appointed Mechichi as his legal advisor, and shortly after, he became interior minister in Elyès Fakhfakh’s government.
No major party proposed Mechichi as prime minister; he was Saïed’s choice. The constitution requires the president to “consult” with the parties in parliament, but does not specify that he choose from the candidates proposed by the largest parties (in this case, Fadhel Abdelkafi and Khayam Turki, both put forward by both Ennahda and Qalb Tounes). Saïed exploited this loophole to put forth Mechichi, in effect creating a “president’s government,” rather than a parliamentary one. Announcing the nomination, Saïed noted, “we respect the legitimacy [of parliament], but the time has come to review it so it…will be a sincere and complete expression of the will of the majority.” This was a reference to the unpopularity of the parliament that Saïed sees as no longer representative of Tunisians’ aspirations.
Mechichi also fits with Saïed’s preference for outsiders. Mechichi is an independent technocrat. His extensive experience in anti-corruption signals that this issue will be the focus of the next government. Meanwhile, the figures proposed by Ennahda and Qalb Tounes have been accused of corruption, the same allegation that brought down the Fakhfakh government. Finally, Mechichi would be the first prime minister from the relatively impoverished northwest, and only the second, after Ali Laarayedh, to hail from outside the developed coastal areas that have produced most of Tunisia’s political elite.
Mechichi has until August 25 to form a government and secure parliamentary approval. He has expressed his preference for a technocratic, rather than a partisan, government, and his initial consultations have been with national organizations such as the Tunisian General Labor Union, not with political parties. A technocratic government would reflect Saïed’s anti-party attitude and stand a better chance of parliamentary backing and of success in governing, as it would not be bogged down by partisan infighting at a time of tense polarization.
If lawmakers fail to approve Mechichi’s government by the August 25 deadline, Saïed has the right to dissolve the parliament and call a new election within 90 days. Since few parties would perform well in a snap election, parliament will likely approve Mechichi’s government.
1. Editor’s post-publication clarification: According to his lawyer, Turki was tried and acquitted on corruption charges in a Swiss court; other news reports, however, state that he faces ongoing corruption investigations. Regarding Abdelkafi, in September 2016 the Tunisian anti-corruption watchdog organization I-Watch published allegations of “conflict of interest and financial wrongdoing” by him. To the best of the authors’ knowledge, Abdelkafi has never responded publicly to these allegations; meanwhile, no court case has been brought against Abdelkafi in this matter. Separately, courts dropped charges of tax evasion and violations of foreign exchange and trade regulations brought by Tunisian customs.
Sharan Grewal is an Assistant Professor of Government at the College of William & Mary, a nonresident senior fellow at POMED, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is on Twitter @sh_grewal.
Mohamed-Dhia Hammami is an independent political analyst based in Tunis. He is on Twitter @MedDhiaH.
Photo Credit: Kaïs Saïed Official Facebook account