Caid Essebsi’s unexpected move

Sunday 12/06/2016
Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi (R) during a TV interview in Tunis, on June 2nd.

Tunis - Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi urged poli­ticians, trade union and business leaders to form a unity government to pull the country out of its paralysis and tackle overdue reforms.

Caid Essebi’s proposal, an­nounced June 2nd, caused ripples in the divided political scene and re­minded the country it is time to face its economic and social challenges.

Central Bank of Tunisia Governor Chedly Ayari warned the country could be unable to pay the wages of its 650,000-person civil service by early next year. Since 2011, the government bureaucracy has un­derpinned the stability of Tunisia, which has been hailed as the great­est success of the “Arab spring”.

“It is time for a change and for audacity,” Caid Essebsi said in a tel­evised interview. “We need a more courageous alternative that can apply the law and fight unemploy­ment.”

Tunisia’s economy, affected by two terrorist attacks in 2015, suffers from a decline in tourism revenues and a slowdown in gross domestic product (GDP) growth, estimated at 0.8% for 2015.

Caid Essebsi, however, lacks prerogatives to see his proposal through. The country’s constitution gives him no power to fire or name the prime minister. There needs be a resignation or incapacity of the latter or a parliamentary vote of no confidence to dismiss him. Should that happen, the head of the state picks a potential prime minister from the leading party in the parlia­ment.

The secularist party Nidaa Tounes, which Caid Essebsi found­ed in 2012, is the largest group in the legislature, winning 85 out of 217 seats in October 2014 after cam­paigning on a strongly secularist platform. Nidaa Tounes, however, has been beset by divisions in recent months with two factions vying for the loyalty of MPs.

Nidaa’s majority faction, under the control of Caid Essebsi’s son Hafedh following a June 6th meet­ing, said the country “needs a unity government in as short a time as possible”. It added that the new government “should be led by a new person”.

The Tunisian General Labour Un­ion (UGTT), which includes activists and figures of five leftist and Arab-nationalist groups, said it supports the president’s proposal but will not participate in a unity government. It vowed to oppose any “offshore” prime minister, a rejection of any new reform-minded premier who would heed the advice of interna­tional financial institutions.

The UGTT has been a main oppo­nent of the government’s austerity programmes and recently threat­ened to call for additional strikes. Leftist opposition parties say they are not interested in joining the uni­ty government and feel vindicated by Caid Essebsi’s critical assessment of current economic situation.

The Islamist Ennahda party, which is a partner in the four-party government coalition, had repeat­edly voiced support for Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid out of what it called eagerness for stability. More recently, however, it blamed the prime minister for Tunisia’s “economic quagmire”.

While Caid Essebsi seems inter­ested in bringing more seats to the government table, Ennahda looks more eager instead to secure a larger share of cabinet posts.

“The obvious deficit of Tunisia’s bright democratic experiment is the lack of a strong leadership and good team work in the government. That is unlikely to come out of this ini­tiative because of the political divi­sions and lack of democracy inside most political groups,” said a senior European diplomat in Tunis.

The day he was expected to ten­der his resignation, Essid walked from his office at the north edge of Tunis’s Kasbah through the narrow alleys of the old city to the head­quarters of the Interior Ministry. His long walk, on the first day of Rama­dan, meant to show that his policies were sound, that security prevails in the capital and that he felt person­ally comfortable mingling with the population.

“Essid wanted to send more than one message to more than a party through his 4km walk. While some people believed that he will walk out of Carthage palace defeated, he sought to tell them: ‘The game is not over and the bets are still open’,” wrote Assabah, a private Arabic-lan­guage newspaper.

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