Saied picks interior minister as next PM, consolidates own power

Islamists will have to choose between endorsing the president’s pick and what it means or reckoning with early elections.
Sunday 26/07/2020
Tunisian president Kais Saied (R) appoints Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi as the country’s new prime minister, at the Carthage Palace, July 25. (AFP)
Tunisian president Kais Saied (R) appoints Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi as the country’s new prime minister, at the Carthage Palace, July 25. (AFP)

TUNIS -  Against all expectations, Tunisian President Kais Saied named the country’s 46-year old minister of the interior to be the next prime minister.

Mechichi will have 30 days to form a new cabinet and submit it to parliamentary approval. If the government does not win the MPs vote of confidence, the president will have to call for early elections.

Mechichi, who has assumed the interior portfolio since last February, has also served as legal advisor to President Saied. He is a graduate in law and public administration.  He has also served in the past as chief of staff in five different ministries.

Mechichi was not among the 21 names suggested by various political parties for the office of prime minister. By picking a name outside the suggestions box, Saied was described by some experts as having used his constitutional prerogatives to consolidate his own power and marginalise the influence of political parties, including that of Islamist party Ennahda, which wields the largest number of seats in parliament. Saied is seen by some as establishing a de facto presidential system with a large sway over the government.

— Priorities —

Choosing a minister of the interior for the prime minister’s job seems to reflect the president’s acute security concerns. In recent weeks, Saied has warned several times against internal and external plots seeking to de-stabilise the country.

Tunisian Prime Minister-Designate Hichem Mechichi speaks after meeting the president, July 25. AFP
Tunisian Prime Minister-Designate Hichem Mechichi speaks after meeting the president, July 25. (AFP) 

When tasking Mechichi with the job, the president highlighted what he thinks are the main issues ahead. A video recording posted on the presidency’s Facebook page, showed Saied telling the prime minister-designate that “respect for the people’s sovereignty” and the fight against corruption and abuse of public funds are among his top priorities.

He expressed his confidence that “Tunisia is able to come out of the current crisis” despite the attempts by “some who are using the crisis narrative as a means to govern.”

The president did not name the parties he suspects of exploiting the country’s predicament.

In other remarks to Mechichi, Saied alluded to his desire to reform the political system. “We respect legality but it is about time to revise it so that it becomes a true and complete reflection of the will of the majority”.

In a brief statement following Saturday’s announcement, Mechichi said he would “work to form a government that meets the legitimate expectations of all Tunisians”.

— Consolidating power —

Saied’s consolidation of power is unlikely to be endorsed by Islamists who are likely to see it as infringing on the power of parliament and its speaker, Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouchi.

But working against a parliamentary vote of confidence for Mechichi would put Islamists at the risk of Saied calling for early elections where they have no guarantee of doing well besides deepening the rift between them and the president.

Islamists will have hence to choose between endorsing the president’s pick (and what that it means) or reckoning with early elections.

Alaya Allani, a Tunisian political analyst, told The Arab Weekly the choice of Mechichi contains three messages. The first is that Saied gives priority to the “re-establishment of security”. The two other messages have to do with fighting corruption and “looking for the constitutional means to changing the political and constitutional system”.

Allani says he does not expect Islamists to be ” be comfortable” with the new government.

The call for reform of the political system is expected to fuel heated debates in the country with Islamists opposing any form of government that consolidates the power of the president or dilutes the prerogatives of parliament.

President Saied, who was elected by more than 70% of universal suffrage,  has often criticised the current political system as not fully reflecting the will of the people and as offering a contradiction between “legality” and “legitimacy”. For jurist Slim Laghmani, the president could be eying the dissolution of parliament and calling for early elections that would lead to a new legislative makeup “more in tune with the orientations of the president” in case Mechichi does not win the confidence of parliament

There have been no official reactions by political parties to the naming of Mechichi. The choice of the interior minister was however welcomed by many centrists and moderate secularists but criticised by figures close to Islamists.

Walid Jallad, an MP from the centrist Tahiya Tounes, welcomed the nomination and said “the president has made a good choice by asking an independent statesman” in the person of Hichem Mechichi to assume the responsibility of prime minister. He added that the process of parliamentary approval should be expedited “because the general situation in the country cannot tolerate any delays”.

Hassouna Nasfi, head of the Reform Bloc in parliament, described Mechichi as “an independent personality and a statesman coming from the civil service and a competence deserving of all support.”

But for Saifeddine Makhlouf, the leader of the ultraconservative Dignity Coalition bloc in parliament, the president has shown that “he does only what’s on his mind without consideration for the constitution, the parliament or the revolution. He has become a true burden on the democratic transition”. Political figures associated with Ennahda called the pick of Mechichi a “bad choice” that “raises many questions.”

The next Tunisian government, if approved, will have to contend with a fragile economy where the GNP growth is expected to retract by about 7% and unemployment set to spike above the 20% mark.

The economic situation has been made more dire by the pandemic’s fallout. The disease has claimed about 50 lives and infected more than 1,400 people in the country. Tunisia has however opened its international borders since last month and eased all confinement measures.