Ennahda puts a good face on new PM designation

Islamist party keen on preserving influence in government, avoiding early elections.

Monday 27/07/2020
Tunisian Prime Minister-designate, Hichem Mechichi, makes remarks after meeting with president. (AFP)
Tunisian Prime Minister-designate, Hichem Mechichi, makes remarks after meeting with president. (AFP)

TUNIS – Faced with the choice of a prime minister designate it did not expect, Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Movement struck a conciliatory tone Monday after the barrage of criticism that its supporters and members had unleashed at President Kais Saied’s appointment of Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi to form the next government.

Mechichi’s name was not among the candidates proposed by the parties and parliamentary groups that had presented their candidates for the President of the Republic earlier last week. He was not also among Ennahda’s favourites for the job.

In an indirect response to rumours that Mechichi would form a technocratic cabinet without consideration of political quotas, Ennahda officials called on the prime minister-designate to form a “political government of national unity.”

Excluding political quotas or political considerations altogether would have meant the atrophy of Ennahda’s role in the government.

The party tried to put a positive spin on the choice of Mechichi in order to safeguard its place in the cabinet.

Imed Khemiri, the party’s spokesman called mechichi ” a man of the civil service and a statesman who has received the confidence vote of Ennahda as minister of interior.”

Tunisian president Kais Saied (R) appoints Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi as the country’s new prime minister, at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, July 25. (Tunisian Presidency)
Tunisian president Kais Saied (R) appoints Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi as the country’s new prime minister, at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, July 25. (Tunisian Presidency)

Ennahda has missed no opportunity Monday to signal its readiness to take part in the new government. Ajmi Lourimi, a member of the Islamist movement’s executive bureau, told a local radio: “Ennahdha is the largest bloc in parliament and it is natural that it will be part of the next government.”

Lourimi added the Islamist party has no reservations about Mechichi, noting that choosing an independent figure to form the government was “a successful choice.”

Regarding the composition and nature of the next government, he said Ennahda wants a government of national unity comprising as many parties as possible.

Ennahda, which wields the largest bloc in parliament with 54 seats, has yet to issue an official statement.

However, Lourimi’s statements follow a wave of criticism over the weekend, from Ennahda’s members and supporters  against the president’s choice. Some Islamist accounts on Facebook stooped to the level of accusing the prime minister-designate of “atheism”.

The social media campaign against Saied and Mechichi also involved supporters and members of The Dignity Coalition, a radical political grouping which has been acting as an ally of the Islamist party.

“Kais Saied wants to destroy the state,” said Imed Dghij, a member of the Coalition who is largely see as a radical agitator on the political scene.

The campaign was so excessive that it seemed to embarrass some Islamist figures.

Senior Ennahda leader and former minister Lotfi Zitoun called Sunday for an end to the online campaign against Mechichi and Saied.

“We must clear the way for Mechichi to hold serious negotiations with all the parties that are concerned with the country’s interest, in order to form of a government of salvation, as soon as possible,” Zitoun said in a Facebook post.

The leader of the Free Doustourian Party (PDL) Abir Moussi hailed the president’s choice and detailed her party’s vision for the next government, which, according to her, should be made up of a small team and address priority issues, such as the economy and the critical situation of distressed sectors, particularly the health and transport sectors.

Moussi added that the PDL will not seek cabinet portfolios, but will vote for Mechichi’s cabinet if it doesn’t include Ennahda members.

By ignoring the parties’ nomination proposals, including those of Ennahda, the president sent on Saturday a strong message to the political class, still divided and mired in political disputes.

When tasking Mechichi with the forming the cabinet, Saied said, “Tunisia is able to come out of the current crisis” despite attempts by “some who are using the crisis narrative as a means to govern.” But he did not name the parties suspected of exploiting Tunisia’s predicament.

Though the president’s frustration with the performance of the political class, particularly Ennahda, was never spelled out overtly, Saied used his political and constitutional powers to tighten the screws on the Islamist movement and its leader Rached Ghannouchi.

Mechichi, a 46-year-old lawyer, succeeds Elyes Fakhfakh, who resigned as prime minister earlier this month.

In a statement following Saturday’s announcement, Mechichi said he would “work to form a government that meets the legitimate expectations of all Tunisians.”

As well as being interior minister in the outgoing government, Mechichi has been legal advisor to President Saied. He has previously been chief of staff at five different ministries.

He now has a month to form a government.

At that point, Mechichi’s cabinet will be put to a parliamentary vote of confidence and will need an absolute majority to succeed.

Failing that, parliament will be dissolved and new elections will be organised within three months.

However, this is a scenario that Ennahda will do its best to avoid as it knows that new elections could weaken its influence and might even give it less seats than it nemesis, Moussi’s PDL.

A repeat of elections could also cause Ennahda’s allies — Qalb Tounes and The Dignity coalition –to emerge weaker, which could further jeopardize the Islamist party’s own influence.

Recent polls have shown Ennahda to be losing steam. According to the latest Emrhod Consulting poll, Ennahda’s archrival, the PDL, enjoys, for the first time, more support than the Islamist party.

The PDL has 28% support among prospective voters, followed by Ennahda (23%), Qalb Tounes (17%), and the Democratic Current (8%). Al Karama Coalition has lost 3 percentage points in just one month, going from 7% to 4%.

With the results of recent polls, experts think Ghannouchi is likely to find it is safer for his party and political allies to maintain the current political instability and weak governments in place than to open the door for unpredictable early elections.