Tunisia forms a cabinet under shadow of power struggle

Experts said there is a risk of Fakhfakh’s government being toppled in a year or so.
Sunday 23/02/2020
Tunisian Prime Minister designate Ilyes Fakhfakh (L) presents his cabinet list to Tunisian President Kais Saied on February 19, 2020 at Tunis' Carthage Palace. (AFP)
In the clear. Tunisian Prime Minister designate Ilyes Fakhfakh (L) presents his cabinet list to Tunisian President Kais Saied on February 19, 2020 at Tunis' Carthage Palace. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Elyes Fakhfakh has announced a coalition government, averting the risk of early elections, four months after a long cycle of presidential and parliamentary polls.

The government lineup is expected to be approved by the parliament during a confidence vote February 26.

Bargaining about the government lineup involved four weeks of political horse-trading in which political parties appeared more interested in the number of cabinet seats they could clinch than in boosting the government’s ability to address pressing priorities.

Even more striking was the deep-running power struggle between Tunisian President Kais Saied and parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who is also president of the Islamist Ennahda Movement.

Despite being the party with the most seats (54) in the 217-member parliament, Ennahda found itself increasingly isolated and at risk of being sidelined by smaller political parties in the government formation process.

After a minor reshuffle of the cabinet by Fakhfakh, however, Ennahda said it would participate in the government and vote for it in parliament. Ennahda is to have six of the 32 government portfolios as 17 were assigned to “independent” figures.

The proposed government’s appointees include legal expert Imed Hazgui, a former head of the national institution ensuring open access to information, as defence minister; and Hichem Mechichi, a former legal adviser to the president, as interior minister. Noureddine Erray, Tunisian ambassador to Muscat, was named foreign minister.

Abdellatif Mekki, Ghannouchi’s most critical figure inside Ennahda, was named public health minister. Lotfi Zitoun, a former Ghannouchi adviser, was selected to be minister of local government. Two party-affiliated figures, Anouar Maarouf (Ennahda) and Mohamed Abbou (Democratic Current), are to be in charge of, respectively, transport and public service.

Fakhfakh dismissed most of Ennahda’s demands, including a larger share in the cabinet and its insistence on including Qalb Tounes, parliament’s second-largest party, in the government lineup.

“We do not want early elections,” said Abdelkarim Harouni, the head of Ennahda’s policy-making Shura Council. His admission was a break from the repeated statements by Islamists that they were ready for snap elections.

Ennahda, more than any other party, did not want to see Saied rule by decree during the period parliament would be dissolved pending new elections, if the cabinet did not obtain parliamentary approval.

The proposed government will likely win a confidence vote in parliament but experts still saw a risk of Fakhfakh’s government being toppled in a year or so if the power struggle between Ghannouchi and Saied continued.

In its initial opposition to Fakhfakh’s cabinet, Ennahda’s leaders cited a commitment to include Qalb Tounes, a party the Islamists previously described as “corrupt” and tried to bar from fielding a candidate in the presidential elections.

Fakhfakh, who virtually received no votes in presidential and legislative elections, latched onto the electoral legitimacy of Saied, who won the presidential race with more than 70% of the vote.

Ennahda took seriously Saied’s threat to dissolve parliament and floated a plan to topple the caretaker cabinet and replace it by a government formed by a figure of its choosing as an alternative to Fakhfakh’s cabinet. Saied dismissed Ennahda’s plan and some parliament members assailed Ghannouchi for the ploy.

Ghannouchi’s efforts to block the formation of the Fakhfakh-led government, despite Saied’s support, lost steam February 18 when Saied chastised Ghannouchi openly about his attempt to reinterpret constitutional provisions in order to topple the caretaker government.

“The text of the constitution is clear,” Saied said. “Only the constitution text is the final arbiter in our differences, not its interpretation by those who have opened fatwa houses.”

Analysts said the Islamists had a sense of a solid front against them in recent weeks after most political groups in parliament rejected a government proposed by Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli, who had been nominated by Ennahda.

Ennahda has been suspicious of Saied’s expressed wish to change the Tunisian political system into a more presidential regime. Saied has also called for amending election laws that underpin Ennahda’s dominance of Tunisian politics.

Saied has no political party and no particular support base in parliament but analysts said his supporters are working to create a political party that would allow him to convert his high public opinion ratings into a political mobilisation platform.