Political infighting raises questions about Tunisian government's ability to focus on challenges

Many observers say the president holds most of the keys to resolving the party crisis.
Monday 06/08/2018
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi(L) and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed attend the Tunisian naval forces military intervention drill on June 25, 2018 at the port of La Goulette in capital Tunis. (AFP)
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (L) and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed attend the Tunisian naval forces military intervention drill on June 25, 2018 at the port of La Goulette in capital Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s parliament began a 2-month recess on July 30, offering the country a reprieve from the infighting that has come to characterise its political realm.

While Tunisia struggles to recover from economic problems, politicians have been jockeying for power and influence ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

The infighting has been especially fierce in the country’s leading moderate secularist party, Nidaa Tounes. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, a party member, and Nidaa Tounes Executive Director Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the president’s son, have been at loggerheads for months.

In May, Caid Essebsi called for Chahed to step down, citing the government’s “many failures.” Chahed hit back in a nationally televised address charging that Caid Essebsi had “destroyed the Nidaa Tounes party.”

Another chapter of their feud played out July 28 on the floor of parliament with a routine confidence vote regarding newly appointed Interior Minister Hichem Fourati turning into a battle about support for Chahed.

Prior to the vote, Nidaa Tounes vowed to reject Fourati to voice discontent with Chahed. However, when it came time to vote, Chahed secured overwhelming approval for his nominee, grabbing a crucial political victory.

The battle over Chahed’s fate is driven by a shaky alliance between Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist Ennahda Movement, which has voiced support for Chahed.

Beji Caid Essebsi and Ghannouchi -- dubbed the “two sheikhs” because of their age and influence -- entered their parties into a coalition government after presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014. However, questions arose about the alliance following municipal elections in May, when Nidaa Tounes was outperformed by both Ennahda and independent candidates.

Ties between the two parties frayed further when Ennahda voiced support for Chahed, who faced objections from leading Nidaa Tounes figures and the powerful Tunisian General Trade Union.

Even Beji Caid Essebsi weighed in on the debate about Chahed, saying the prime minister should either step down or seek a confidence vote for himself and his government in parliament. However, Chahed’s show of strength in parliament on July 28 solidified his image as a new leader of Tunisia’s secularists, his backers said.

With deep divisions in Nidaa Tounes and Ghannouchi thought to be weighing a run for president next year, Chahed’s stature will likely be the source of further discord. His perceived support by Ennahda raised questions about his credentials as leader of the anti-Islamist camp.

Tunisian political analyst Khawthar Zantour said: “The way out of the crisis is for Chahed to quit the government, Hafedh Caid Essebsi to (step down) as leader of Nidaa Tounes and for the president to name a respected independent personality to lead a government of national salvation.”

“But Hafedh vowed to not give up as Nidaa leader and Chahed is sticking to his guns to keep his position,” she added.

A spokesman for Hafedh Caid Essebsi defended the party leader’s record, saying he had saved Nidaa Tounes from collapse despite “betrayals” and “plots to wreak havoc on the party by enemies.”

Many observers say the president holds most of the keys to resolving the party crisis, which has affected the country’s development and reform efforts.

Writing on the confidence vote in parliament, Nizar Bahloul, editor of Business News magazine, said: “It was a good victory for Chahed but that triumph will not end his war with Hafedh. The only person who can announce a truce is Beji Caid Essebsi and the latter is not yet ready to abandon his support for his son.”

Analysts said, if the stalemate is not resolved, political skirmishes will put the country at risk of greater social unrest.

“The crisis has paralysed the government and parliament, divided and discredited the political class and undermined public confidence in the country’s institutions,” said a report by the International Crisis Group. “It has reduced the government’s capacity to deal with unexpected events, such as jihadist attacks or large-scale riots, and has fuelled the drift towards authoritarianism.”

The report said the dispute demonstrates that leaders were disconnected from the needs of the people.

“For the ordinary citizen, whether Youssef Chahed continues as head of government and his eventual victory against Hafedh Caid Essebsi are secondary issues,” the report stated. “The priority is for political parties to demonstrate that they have rediscovered the sense of the state and that stable and effective executive and administrative authorities rise above political squabbling and strengthen confidence in institutions.”