Pushed into a corner, Tunisia’s prime minister-designate drifts away from ‘revolutionary’ politics, faces deadline

Fakhfakh met with Qalb Tounes leader Nabil Karoui on February 6 and included him in the consultations about the government formation the next day.
Sunday 09/02/2020
Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Elyes Fakhfakh speaks during a news conference. (AFP)
Changing course. Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Elyes Fakhfakh speaks during a news conference. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Elyes Fakhfakh was pushed by Islamists into a dilemma: Either reverse his “revolutionary” course to win parliamentary confirmation or suffer a fiasco that would test the strategy of President Kais Saied and risk snap elections.

Fakhfakh’s selection by Saied put him at loggerheads with parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who, as president of the Islamist Ennahda Movement, is intent to thwart Saied’s declared aim to play a greater political role that could overshadow Ghannouchi.

Fakhfakh had excluded Qalb Tounes, the second-largest party in the 217-member parliament after Ennahda, and the Free Destourian Party, led by anti-Islamist lawyer Abir Moussi, from his planned government. He banked on support from “pro-revolutionary” formations in the parliament, including the Islamist movement, to gain acceptance for the cabinet.

“I do not consider them (Qalb Tounes and Free Destourian Party) on the path of the revolution and meeting the people’s expectations regarding the road ahead,” Fakhfakh said in his first news conference as prime minister-designate.

Having received virtually no votes in the legislative election, Fakhfakh linked himself to Saied, who was voted into office with more than 70% of the ballots. “All parties voted for Kais Saied because he embodies values and principles of the people, except those two parties,” he said.

Fakhfakh’s push to form a cabinet without Qalb Tounes and the Free Destourian Party was based on the assessment that the parties toeing “the path of the revolution” could together provide the support of at least 140 MPs, 31 votes more than a parliamentary majority.

Ennahda was counted among those parties because it had voted for Saied and its leaders had previously ruled out any alliance with Qalb Tounes but Ghannouchi and Ennahda, citing “national interest” and “political inclusiveness,” suddenly changed course. They attacked Fakhfakh’s approach and called for the inclusion of Qalb Tounes in the government.

“Like Saied, who is the president of all Tunisians, Fakhfakh must be the head of the government of all Tunisians, a government that includes all Tunisians,” said Ghannouchi. “If he continues in the path of exclusion of Qalb Tounes or another party, we will not lend him our confidence in the parliament.”

“That stand is not a political manoeuvre or born out stubbornness but it stems from an assessment of the national interest,” said Ghannouchi, who argued that “Tunisia is in a war against poverty and for development.”

Fakhfakh met with Qalb Tounes leader Nabil Karoui on February 6 and included him in the consultations about the government formation the next day.

The manoeuvres transformed the image of Fakhfakh from a chief of the “president’s government” into a “hostage of Ghannouchi and Ennahda,” analysts said. Former allies threatened to desert him.

It was unclear whether Fakhfakh would be assured of a parliamentary majority for his government by the deadline of February 21. Failure to do so could signal snap elections that could produce a more conflicted parliament amid unprecedented economic and social crises.

Fakhfakh’s yielding to the Islamists turned Ghannouchi from leader of an isolated party, after his choice for prime minister was unable to form a government, to the main power broker.

Ghannouchi also was in a better position to settle scores with his intra-party rivals. Ennahda’s leaders who praised the nomination of Fakhfakh as a “friend of Ennahda” and embraced his “revolutionary path” fell silent when Ghannouchi needled him.

Fakhfakh adviser Fethi Touzri said Ennahda was wrong on its assessment of the country’s political moment and that Fakhfakh would not change course.

Analysts faulted Fakhfakh for locking himself in a narrow “path of the revolution” by excluding political groups, which made it possible for Ghannouchi to be seen as a conciliator.

“Ennahda launched a ruthless offensive with attacks targeting both the prime minister-designate and the president who designated him with the final knock-out blow from Ghannouchi pushing Fakhfakh to revise fundamentally his approach, but the blow has also cast doubt about the ability of Kais Saied to make good political choices,” said political writer Ikhlass Latif.

“This reconciliation with Qalb Tounes imposed on Fakhfakh by Ennahda weakens the stand of Kais Saied and discredits Fakhfakh, who has kept boasting about the revolutionary path he follows.”

Experts warned against fresh elections, citing the low economic growth, high inflation, mass unemployment and widening deficits and burdening debts.

A new poll indicated that the Free Destourian Party was in the lead in a potential election with 16.6% support, ahead of Ennahda (15.9%) and Qalb Tounes (15.6%). In a presidential contest, Saied would come first with 63.9% support and Karoui second with 11.1%.

Politicians involved in talks  about a future government said consultations with Qalb Tounes does not mean it would be part of the cabinet but figures close to the party could be ministers to placate Ennahda and Qalb Tounes.

Economists warned that the consensus advocated by Ghannouchi could pose more risks than possible elections.

“For many foreign observers, a repeat of the shallow consensus for the 2020-24 bears the risk of the last blow to the economy as a whole to its knees and to a faltering institutional transition,” said Tunisian economist Moktar Lamari.