New Tunisian government assumes office, faces uphill task
TUNIS - Youssef Chahed, at 40 years of age Tunisia’s youngest prime minister in 60 years, formally assumed his duties August 30th and immediately started navigating the daunting socio-economic and security challenges facing Tunisia.
Chahed took charge of Tunisia’s seventh cabinet in five years following approval by the country’s fractious parliament. He must now tackle problems that have accumulated since the overthrow of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, as well as long-simmering issues — including youth unemployment and regional development imbalances — that date back decades.
Of immediate concern is the risk of financial insolvency and social discontent over unkept promises by successive governments.
The day before taking office Chahed was reminded of the terror problem when jihadists ambushed an army unit.
Many Tunisian analysts said Chahed must perform a juggling act with an extraordinary degree of diplomacy and political shrewdness if he hopes to balance the diametrically opposed pressure from the country’s combative trade unions with the demands of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The IMF and the World Bank “are perfectly aware of the nation’s financial situation and the drift of the public”, Chahed acknowledged.
The country that currently cannot afford big spending policies needs to secure the disbursement of a $2.9 billion IMF loan agreed to in June.
“We need to resume talks with [the IMF] to explain better the new context to try to find together the appropriate solutions,” Chahed said.
The reform package requested by the IMF includes austerity measures that are unpopular with trade unions but Chahed is counting on “dialogue” to avoid future instability. Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) spokesman Sami Tahri warned that the unions “will fight any policies that add more hardship to workers. This is a just cause in which the union and the people will come out as winners.”
Economists say Tunisia could be compelled to implement austerity measures, including the reduction of the 650,000-person public sector workforce and trimming of civil service salaries by up to 12% in order to meet IMF conditions.
Chahed also has pledged to fight corruption. Chawki Tabib, head of the anti-graft body INLC, told Agence France-Presse that corruption and poor governance standards in public contracts cost Tunisia nearly $1 billion a year.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who was behind the initiative to form the national unity government, is likely to remain the Chahed government’s main backer as the new prime minister negotiates with the trade unions and the seven political parties that are represented in the new cabinet.
The president recognises that the government must assume the main responsibility for success or failure.
“After the formation of this new cabinet, a positive message must be sent to the Tunisian people that there is a change in the ways of managing the government and quick decisions must be taken,” Caid Essebsi said.