Cabinet reshuffle widens divide between Tunsian president and prime minister

Chahed said the new appointments were aimed at making “the work of government more effective” and putting “an end to the political and economic crisis.” 
Tuesday 06/11/2018
Parting ways. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (R) and President Beji Caid Essebsi (C) arrive for a cabinet meeting, on August 31, 2016. (AFP)
Parting ways. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (R) and Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (C) arrive for a cabinet meeting, on August 31, 2016. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed named 10 new ministers on November 5 in a cabinet reshuffle to expand his political support in parliament, but he may have ushered in a new political crisis pitting him against the president. 

President Beji Caid Essebsi’s spokeswoman Saida Garrach said the prime minister did not consult with the president on the reshuffle ahead of time.

"The president does not agree to this rash approach that aims at imposing a fait accompli," said Garrach. 

Noureddine Benticha, a top political adviser to the president, said the country’s Islamist party was behind the move.

“We can say clearly today that this government is Ennahda’s government,” said Benticha. “This reshuffled cabinet was formed by Ennahda. It is Ennahda which has appointed Chahed as prime minister.”

Caid Essebsi cannot stop the reshuffle, which is expected to be approved by parliament. But he can throw obstacles in the way of the appointed members’ swearing-in or of the signing of bills and decrees.

With the support of Nidaa’s deputies inside the parliament, Caid Eessbsi and his allies could make it difficult for Chahed to govern and for the new formation to focus on turning around the economy and addressing social issues. 

Chahed picked the 10 new ministers and eight new junior ministers from three political groups, including Ennahda, to ensure parliament would endorse the change. Alongside Chahed’s own supporters, those three parties have a large majority in the 217-member parliament.

However, Chahed kept the key defence, foreign affairs, interior and finance portfolios unchanged. He cannot name new ministers of defence and foreign affairs without first consulting with the president.

In a broad reach for support outside organised political groups, Chahed named a Tunisian Nobel peace prize winner and a young Tunisian Jewish businessman as ministers.

Mohamed Fadhel Mahfoudh, the former head of Tunisia’s bar association and co-recipient of the 2015 Nobel Peace prize, was selected as the minister in charge of human rights. 

René Trabelsi, a Paris-based Jewish businessman,was selected as tourism minister. Trabelsi is the first member of Tunisia’s Jewish community to be appointed to a ministerial role since the country’s independence in 1956, when former President Habib Bourguiba appointed two Jewish figures to his government. 

Chahed said the new appointments were aimed at making “the work of government more effective” and putting “an end to the political and economic crisis.” 

He also saw the reshuffle as a way to foster a “healthy political climate” after months of political infighting within Nidaa Tounes, the country’s main secularist party founded by President Beji Caid Essebsi and led by Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the president’s son.

“This reshuffle will also permit (us) to find appropriate solutions to several difficult dossiers, especially those related to social and economic challenges. We have only one year left before the next elections,””Chahed said.

“This cabinet change will provide a political climate healthy and favourable to face the challenges of the next stages,” he added.

Tunisia plunged into a deep economic and social crisis following a 2011 uprising that overthrow former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Nine governments have since failed to reverse a stubborn economic downturn and a growing social malaise. 

Chahed, in a bid to receive the backing of former Ben Ali supporters, especially in the key Sahel region, appointed Kamel Morjane as minister in charge of public service and administrative modernisation. Morjane, who served as foreign minister and defence minister under Ben Ali and currently heads the centrist El Moubadara party, has hinted he may run for president next year.

Chahed kept Education Minister Hatem Ben Salem and Finance Minister Ridha Chalghoum, both of whom served under Ben Ali, in their positions. 

However, no supporter of Hafedh Caid Essebsi was appointed to the reshuffled cabinet, meaning that Nidaa, which named Chahed as one of its senior officials, is now in the opposition — a harbinger of intensified infighting ahead.

Nidaa Tounes nominated Chahed as prime minister more than two years ago with the aim of improving the country’s economic and social climate and thus bolstering the party’s chances in parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2019.

However, the party suspended Chahed’s membership in September following months of political infighting.

The move to put Nidaa outside the cabinet is likely to exacerbate the splintering of secularist forces and cast more doubt on their ability to halt the Islamist party’s momentum ahead of crucial elections next year.

The Islamist Ennahda party is a partner in the governing coalition, reached as part of an “entente” between Ennahda’s chief, Rached Ghannouchi, and President Caid Essebsi to secure government stability.

But in May, Caid Essebsi said that Ennahda had ended the entente with him, mainly because of its adamant support for Chahed.

The reshuffle increased Ennahda’s portfolios in the government from five to nine and entrenched the role of the Islamists as “masters of the political game.” Ennahda now has the largest number of deputies in parliament and the ability to prop up or derail Chahed’s government at any time.

“It is Rached Ghannounchi who is in charge of the reshuffle. No person had consulted with us about the cabinet change,” said Hafedh Caid Essebsi.

Within Nidaa, a major issue of contention is Chahed’s ambitions for the presidency.

Chahed needs to secure significant results ahead of upcoming elections, including economic growth, lower inflation and a reduced budget, to shore up support. 

Caid Essebsi has the power to challenge the reshuffle in a bruising legal and parliamentary battle by bringing forward a vote on the government as a whole, including on Chahed.

The president’s allies in the powerful Tunisian General Trade Union (UGTT) have enough influence to besiege the government with strikes and social protests.The UGTT is gearing up for a general strike of 650,000 civil servants planned for November 22 over salary hikes.

“Tunisia does not deserve this. It deserves better than this reshuffle. Stubbornness in such a situation makes the climate worse,” said UGTT leader Noureddine Taboubi in reaction to the reshuffle.