Ennahda jockeys to oust PM, take control of government

The Islamist party’s Shura Council voted in favour of starting negotiations to form new cabinet. But Preside Saied dismisses talk of such negotiations.
Monday 13/07/2020
A file picture shows Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh attending a parliament session in Tunis. (AFP)
A file picture shows Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh attending a parliament session in Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS – Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party’s Shura Council decided Sunday to turn the page on the government of Elyes Fakhfakh and start consultations to form a new coalition after a meeting in Hammamet.

According to local media, 54 members of the Shura Council voted in favour of dismissing Fakhfakh as prime minister, against 38 who affirmed their attachment to governmental stability.

This comes after information circulated on Sunday that the Islamist party could withdraw its ministers from the government.

If Ennahda, the main party in Tunisia’s ruling coalition, withdraws its ministers, Fakhfakh could replace them with interim ministers before seeking to form a new coalition.

However, experts say such news is premature and it appears that no decision was officially taken, although the issue could have been discussed during the Shura Council meeting.

According to media reports, the vote provoked friction within the Shura Council. A clash is said to have occurred as Ennahda’s parliamentary bloc leader, Noureddine Bhiri, argued strongly in favour of the decision while current health minister, Abdellatif Mekki, asserted angrily that he still had a reform programme to implement as part of the government.

“The decisions of the Shura Council are aimed at making the Tunisian people believe that Ennahda is still in control of the situation while it has become the weakest link,” said Echaab Movement MP Hatem Boubakri. “What is happening now is a simple political manoeuvre by Ennahda to save face.”

Pressure on the government has mounted in recent weeks after opponents called for the resignation of Fakhfakh over an alleged a conflict of interest issue.

Ennahda on Sunday said that it wants “to hold talks to form a strong new government because this government lost credibility after suspicion of conflict of interest involving the prime minister,” Imed Khmiri, a senior member of the Islamist party, said.

Fakhfakh has rejected accusations of corruption, even after an independent member of parliament leaked documents last month indicating that companies the prime minister owns shares in had won deals worth 44 million dinars ($15 million) from the state.

The leak is suspected of being part of a pressure campaign by Ennahda and its political allies to maintain destabilising leverage over Fakhfakh’s government, perceived as “the government of the president.”

President Kais Saied, who is seen as a constant challenger to Ennahdha’s quest for control of the country’s political institutions, dismissed Monday any talk about negotiations to form a new government as baseless “fabrications” aimed at “misleading” the public. In a video statement released by his press office, Saied emphasised that the presidency is not concerned by any such negotiations as long as the PM enjoys his “full prerogatives”. Any negotiations,  he pointed out, can only take place if the parliament passes a no confidence-vote in the government or if the prime minister resigns. 

Political activists have called on Saied to seek the resignation of Fakhfakh and replace him with a prime minister of his choice as a way to pre-empt Ennahda’s attempts at reshaping the cabinet according to its political interests.

Earlier this month, Fakhfakh, who assumed the premiership in February, said that he has no intention of quitting and intends to “fulfil the mission for which he was appointed.”

He also indicated that he would not concede to Ennahda’s demands to reshape the governing coalition to include the Qalb Tounes party and exclude the pan-Arabist People’s Movement, which has often refused to cooperate with Ennahda on parliamentary initiatives.

The row comes as Tunisia tries to put state finances on sounder footing after years of deficit spending and mounting public debt – issues that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to government figures, the country’s economy is expected to contract by at least 6% this year, as public companies flounder.

The trend is part of a deeper recession this year than the last official forecast of 4.3% made by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Key sectors, notably tourism and textiles, are likely to be hardest hit, resulting in around 130,000 lost jobs and public debt hitting a “terrifying level” of 92 billion dinars ($33.5 billion).