More political instability ahead as Tunisia’s PM seems to lose support of Islamists

The opportunistic wavering of Ennahda and infighting in Nidaa Tounes could cost Youssef Chahed his position.
Saturday 08/09/2018
Tunisia's Prime Minister Youssef Chahed speaks at the Assembly of People's Representatives in Tunis, last July. (Reuters)
Tunisia's Prime Minister Youssef Chahed speaks at the Assembly of People's Representatives in Tunis, last July. (Reuters)

TUNIS - The opportunistic wavering of Tunisia’s main Islamist party Ennahda and infighting in the secularist Nidaa Tounes could cost Youssef Chahed his position as prime minister and leave the secularist camp in shreds ahead of next year’s elections.

Tunisia has been in the throes of political instability since the “Arab spring” uprising overthrew former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

Tunisia, hailed abroad as the only political success of the “Arab spring,” has made remarkable political strides since Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime was ousted but nine governments in eight years have been unable to better living conditions for most Tunisians.

Chahed, Tunisia’s youngest prime minister since independence when he took office two years ago, on August 16 set the record for longevity as prime minister. He weathered street riots in January 2017 and pressures by former powerful supporters turned rivals and ended up depending mainly on the support of Ennahda, a partner in his coalition government.

However, rivals in his Nidaa Tounes party, backed by the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), stepped up attacks on Chahed to force him from office. Now, the fragile backing by the Islamists seems to be weakening, analysts said.

The Islamists have proven the efficiency of their opportunistic strategy, which has contributed to sowing division among rivals and maximising political gains. Because of public jockeying by politicians, disappointment among Tunisians has widened and mistrust of leading political figures has hit record lows.

An opinion poll by Sigma Conseil stated that 87% of Tunisian respondents said the country was going in “the wrong direction” and 14% of those asked expressed satisfaction with the performance of President Beji Caid Essebsi. Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi was given a 9% satisfaction rate.

By contrast, 59% of respondents told pollsters they were satisfied with Chahed‘s record.

“Our position calling for a wholesale government change stems from the social and economic failures of this government, which are a danger to Tunisia’s stability,” said Nidaa Tounes head Hafedh Caid Essebsi, a son of the president.

Beji Caid Essebsi expressed disapproval of Chahed’s record, a move seen as aimed at blocking Chahed’s presidential ambitions amid infighting among rival factions in Nidaa Tounes, a party Beji Caid Essebsi founded on the initial aim of pushing back Islamist dominance.

“If this government stays, the political crisis will be amplified and the situation will go rotten,” said Nidaa Tounes official Khaled Chouket. “In a worst-case scenario, we could experience a military coup.”

“The national army is very responsible but the recklessness of politicians will push it to intervene and save the country,” added Chouket, a former Islamist figure who joined Nidaa Tounes.

Even political groups in the centre-left who were neutral in the fight between Chahed and his rivals joined calls for him to quit.

“The continuity of this government represents a danger for the country,” said Kamel Gargouri, a senior official of the Forum for Labour and Freedoms.

UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine Tabboubi, said: “We are responsible people. We initially supported this government but at the end we found that we had children in front of us.”

Chahed’s stay in office hinges on Ennahda, which had refused to back a change of head of government out of concern for stability but on August 16 Ennahda said Chahed must publicly relinquish any bid for the 2019 presidential race or lose Ennahda’s backing in government.

Analysts say Ennahda was close to ending its support after Ghannouchi met with Beji Caid Essebsi and possibly struck a deal.

“Chahed’s fate was sealed September 3 when Ghannouchi met with President Caid Essebsi. Ghannouchi told him that he dropped his support for Chahed,” said political writer Marouen Achouri.

Analysts said Ghannouchi sought to bargain his backing for Chahed against a commitment from Caid Essebsi to not delay next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

They said Ennahda expected to score well in the elections because of the political chaos in Nidaa Tounes, a situation that is unlikely to change before the vote.

“What interests the Islamists most is the certainty of not putting off the elections. Their support for Chahed is least of their concerns,” said political analyst Zied Krichene. “The issue now is not whether Chahed will remain in office until the end of September but rather when his opponents and his Islamist backer agree upon who will replace him.”

“Chahed is more than ever on an ejection seat. His potential successors are queuing and their names are being circulated on political salons,” wrote local Business News online magazine.

Ali Larayedh, a senior Ennahda official and former prime minister, said: “The only aim of Ennahda is the elections take place on time in 2019 and that they be successful.”

However, if Chahed resigns as prime minister, he would leave many questions, including whether his successor would achieve more than Chahed before the elections and whether he would be beholden to those who appoint him to proceed with reforms.

“Tunisia appears more than ever to be adrift, begging for deliberate political commitment and guidance and for a political class able to spearhead changes and reforms necessary to pull back the country from being shipwrecked, a danger that looks more and more inevitable,” said political writer Nejib Ouerghi.