Riding wave of support for fighting corruption, Tunisian prime minister tests Washington waters

Sunday 09/07/2017
Surging popularity. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (C) greeting people during a visit to the southern Tunisian resort island of Djerba. (AFP)

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, bask­ing in popular support for a successful campaign against corruption, is to visit the United States to check on Washington’s enthusiasm for Tuni­sia’s experiment with democracy.

The United States frequently cites Tunisia as a model for democratic transition in the MENA region after a popular revolt overthrew autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and touched off upheaval across the Arab world.

Before US President Donald Trump was inaugurated, Washing­ton was a staunch backer of Tunisia’s nascent democracy, providing cash, loan guarantees and other financial facilities, as well as military and se­curity support. Former US President Barack Obama noted the “courage and dignity of the Tunisian people” as they undertook “this brave and determined struggle.”

In his first visit to the United States as prime minister, Chahed is expected to seek expanded military, security and economic cooperation to shore up Tunisia’s democracy. It faces numerous challenges, includ­ing the threat posed by jihadists, economic stagnation and popular disillusionment with Islamists who entrenched themselves in parlia­ment and the government during the instability of the “Arab spring.”

Human rights activists and advo­cates of multiparty democracy will carefully assess how Chahed is re­ceived in Washington as a gauge of the Trump administration’s level of support for Tunisia.

The Trump administration has expressed wariness of political Is­lam with the US president urging ac­tion “if you have people coming out of mosques with hatred and death in their eyes and on their minds.”

Chahed’s political rivals wonder whether he will be embraced by the Trump administration at a time when he needs to bolster his leader­ship at home.

At 41, Chahed is Tunisia’s young­est prime minister in 60 years. His popularity among Tunisians surged to 80% in early July from 54.6% in May, an opinion poll by the local Sigma pollster indicated. Chahed’s soaring popularity stems from his campaign to stamp out widespread corruption, which he called an ex­istential threat to Tunisia’s democ­racy.

His anti-corruption campaign be­gan in May with the arrest of a score of businesspeople and suspected accomplices, including Chafik Jer­raya, who once dared Chahed to arrest him given his strong links to the media and other spheres of in­fluence.

“Chahed cannot arrest even a young goat,” Jerraya boasted in a live television interview.

Chahed expanded his offensive against suspected corrupt business­people and smuggling networks by seizing assets of football boss and businessman Slim Riahi, who has doubled as a politician since an un­successful bid for the presidency in 2015.

The extended drive against cor­ruption surprised almost every­one in Tunisia for its boldness and fuelled Chahed’s support among a populace frustrated by the spread of graft and stalled economic growth.

Chahed’s fight against corruption is not without risks to both his polit­ical future and to Tunisia’s stability, especially if his rivals undermine his efforts.

Chahed has no organised politi­cal force of his own. Although origi­nally a leading figure of the main secular Nidaa Tounes party, he has distanced himself from all political parties.

Nidaa Tounes and the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union are clamouring for a government reshuf­fle to advance their own represent­atives in Chahed’s cabinet and influ­ence his initiatives.

Politicians are either jealous of his popularity or fear that a further ex­pansion of his fight against corrup­tion could hit their allies in business and the bureaucracy.

Chahed said the battle will go on: “Tunisia is fighting three big wars: One against terrorism in which we are achieving tangible results; a second against corruption, which becomes a scourge threatening the democratic political system; and the third, which is the mother of all wars, the one to win the challenges of development and job creation.”

“All these wars need patience and unity,” he said.