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