Daunting tasks for new Tunisian prime minister

Sunday 07/08/2016
His relative youth stands in contrast to current political leadership of Caid Essebsi

TUNIS - Youssef Chahed, an agri­cultural science special­ist and a junior minister, has been selected by Tu­nisian President Beji Caid Essebsi to be prime minister and “get Tunisia out of the rut”.

Chahed, 40, replaces Habib Es­sid, who was dismissed after a lop-sided parliamentary vote of no-confidence over deepening social and economic crises. Parliament on July 30th voted 118-3, with 27 abstentions, to remove Essid from office. Chahed was appointed four days later.

Chahed has the daunting task of unifying political and social fac­tions to tackle Tunisia’s challenges, including jihadist terror, social in­stability, an ailing economy and corruption. Since January, he has served as minister in charge of lo­cal government affairs, working to introduce reforms conducive to decentralisation. In 2015, he had made his debut in government as deputy minister in charge of the fishing sector.

He also has a background as a secularist party activist. He was a founder of the Republican Party, a left-of-centre bloc, in 2012, before joining Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party. He oversaw that party’s elec­toral platform in the 2014 elections.

Since the ouster of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia has been praised as a beacon of de­mocracy in an Arab world plagued by wars and political instability but jihadist attacks in 2015 on tourist landmarks in Tunisia greatly dam­aged the economy and frightened away holiday-makers — a main source of foreign currency infusion — and traditional investors.

Political infighting among the ruling four-party coalition slowed reforms meant to energise growth, address social frustrations — espe­cially among restive youth — and enhance government efficacy.

Caid Essebsi had been pushing for a national unity government to form a consensus among ten politi­cal parties and the three main social organisations.

Chahed, an instrumental figure in the secular Nidaa Tounes party Caid Essebsi founded three years ago as a counterbalance to the Is­lamist Ennahda party, said: “The president has put me in charge of the national unity government. This is a message of confidence for young people also. In this delicate time, we need a lot of audacious decisions.”

Chahed’s relative youth stands in contrast to the current political leadership of Caid Essebsi, who is 89, and parliament Speaker Mo­hamed Ennaceur, 82. Essid is 67.

Caid Essebsi’s opponents chal­lenged the choice of Chahed as prime minister, claiming family ties played a role in the decision. Chahed dismissed the accusation, saying: “I have no family tie with the head of the state. He is neither my in-law nor my uncle. I had be­gun dealing with Caid Essebsi after the revolution in 2011.”

Chahed urged his countrymen to focus on the task ahead.

“Today we enter a new stage that requires effort, sacrifice, audacity, courage, selflessness and unortho­dox solutions,” he said outside the presidential palace in Carthage.

“Our priorities are winning the war on terrorism, declaring war on corruption, controlling public finances and cleaning the environ­ment.”

Tunisian security forces, capital­ising on improved intelligence and coordination, have dismantled nu­merous suspected terrorist cells. The armed forces have contained jihadist groups to mountainous ar­eas straddling the most restive re­gions of Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid.

A 2016 report by the anti-graft agency Transparency Internation­al, however, indicated that 62% of Tunisians said the government had failed in the fight against cor­ruption. Chairman of the High Au­thority to Fight Corruption Chawki Tabib warned that Tunisia could become a “mafiosi state” if corrup­tion was to go unchecked.

Slowing economic growth and rising wages of a bloated govern­ment bureaucracy, which employs more than 600,000 people, has weakened the country’s financial position already under pressure with rising defence and security spending.

Tunisia’s gross domestic prod­uct growth slowed to 0.8% in 2015 from 2.3% in 2014. The unemploy­ment rate was 15% at the end of last year.

“The issue of state finances is the most urgent, the most serious and the most worrying question. The situation of the budget is very serious,” said former Central Bank governor Kamel Nabli. “Whatever pledges you make to resolve prob­lems of the country will depend on the budget and what is in it.”

Tunisia sought an extended fund facility from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in June when the lender said the country needed to address many economic chal­lenges as spending composition has worsened, external imbalanc­es were high, the dinar remained overvalued, banking fragilities re­mained and reforms to strengthen the business climate had slowed.

The IMF’s five-year programme linked to a $2.9 billion line of credit is designed to target critical long-standing structural weaknesses of Tunisia’s economy.

Chahed has 30 days to form a cabinet and win endorsement by parliament, which is seen as a fore­gone conclusion if he were to give enough cabinet positions to sat­isfy Ennahda and sustain the alli­ance between the Islamist group and Nidaa Tounes, which together control a majority in the legislative body.