Tunisia PM comes out ahead in crucial confidence vote for interior minister

The vote was a major victory for Chahed, who has been at loggerheads with members of his own party.
Tuesday 31/07/2018
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, right, speaks, as new Tunisian Interior Minister Hichem Fourati, left, looks on, prior to a confidence bill during a plenary session at the Parliament in Tunis, Tunisia, Saturday, July 28, 2018. (AP)
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, right, speaks, as new Tunisian Interior Minister Hichem Fourati, left, looks on, prior to a confidence bill during a plenary session at the Parliament in Tunis, Tunisia, Saturday, July 28, 2018. (AP)

TUNIS -Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed scored a major political victory on July 28, securing overwhelming approval in parliament for his newly appointed minister of the interior.

Hichem Fourati, appointed July 24 to head the ministry, was approved 148-13 (with 8 abstentions) in a dramatic confidence vote that was seen a key test for Chahed, who has been at loggerheads with members of his own party.

Fourati, a senior civil servant who formerly served as the ministry’s chief of staff, is a widely respected technocrat. He will replace former minister Lotfi Brahem, who was fired June 6 over the fallout from a deadly migrant boat accident.  

Prior to the vote, analysts said it was unclear whether Fourati had enough support to win the vote, with Tunisia’s leading Nidaa Tounes party and its allies vowing to block the nomination as part of their efforts to oust Chahed.

“We will not give the confidence vote to the minister,” said Nidaa spokesman Mongi Harbaoui prior to the vote.

Surprisingly, however, Fourati received support from nearly all deputies of Nidaa Tounes, a shift analysts said was meant to help the party “save face” as the “yes” camp gained traction.

The vote was a major victory for Chahed, whose own position could have been in jeopardy had his pick not been approved.

“Chahed gambled his political future on the vote for the interior minister,” said Tunisian political analyst Zied Krichen."It would be illogical for him to keep his job if the minister failed to win the confidence vote.”

The result was also a show of strength for Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, which helped launch a strong defence of Fourati, arguing his confirmation was crucial to ensuring national security, especially during the current high tourism season.

Fourati’s nomination and the political drama that preceded it reflected the longstanding division within Tunisia’s leading Nidaa Tounes party, particularly between Chahed and Nidaa’s executive director, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, who is also the son of President Beji Caid Essebsi.

Tensions between the two came to a head in May when Hafedh called on Chahed to resign his position, citing his government’s “many failures.”  Chahed, in response, accused Hafedh of “destroying the Nidaa Tounes party” in a nationally televised address.

“Hafedh Caid Essebsi and his entourage destroyed Nidaa Tunis, forcing many of its activists and competences to leave,” Chahed said on May 29.

The dispute also led to friction between Chahed and the president, with Caid Essebsi saying the prime minister should either step down or seek a confidence vote for him and his government in parliament.

Critics of Caid Essebsi said that showed the president had foregone his role as a statesman in order to side with his son, while Chahed said a government overhaul would harm the national interest, especially in economic terms.

With mounting criticism of Chahed’s record ahead of Fourati’s confidence vote, the prime minister pointed to indications of economic recovery, citing a 2.6% drop in unemployment for university graduates and a 20% increase in foreign investment since August 2016, when he took over. He also noted that investment in the manufacturing and services industries rose 24% and 63% respectively during the period, while export value increased 43%.  

“These are pointers towards an economic recovery,” said Chahed, adding that the country would see a full economic turnaround in time.

“I agree with those who say that these improvements have yet to filter to down to make an impact in the daily life of the majority,” Chahed said. “That will change by early next year.”

With the deficit expected to decrease, most Tunisians will benefit from lower inflation and taxes, a reprieve from “the painful measures taken this year to re-launch growth,” Chahed added. 

Chahed's opponents, especially from the left, highlighted the fall of the national currency, the dinar, rising inflation, continuing unemployment and the more recent outcry over the scarcity of pharmaceutical products.

The prime ministers’ reassuring comments come as the country faces a comprehensive economic review on August 15 by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which granted Tunisia a $2.9 billion loan in May 2016. The fourth disbursement of that loan, crucial to replenishing dwindling foreign currency reserves, will hinge on the IMF’s review of Tunisia’s progress in implementing reforms

The IMF in a statement said Tunisia had shown a clear commitment to introducing reforms but must be ready for further increases in the benchmark interest rate to counter inflation. It also urged the government to introduce more cost-cutting measures, which could be another source of friction as prices rise.

Chahed’s supporters said his ability to secure support for the new minister of the interior pointed to a "new dawn” of Nidaa Tounes outside of  “Caid Essebsi’s shadows.”

“Today, we witnessed the resurgence of a generation that inherits nothing except what it wins from hard work,” Nidaa activist Karim Barketallah wrote on social media. “This generation inside the Nidaa has won a great battle.”

“Nidaa will emerge strong this evening with the vote of confidence,” he added.

Centrist parliament member Sahbi Fredj, who voted in favour of Fourati, said Ennahda was the true winner of the ongoing political drama.

“A technical vote was turned into a decisive moment for the political future of Chahed as head of the government and a politician by all those who created and fanned this crisis,” he said.

“Ennahda seized the moment of the suicidal battle raging among its foes to exploit its fallout, expand its benefits and bolster its political record to the detriment of all others,” he added.

Ennahda also projected an image of “political responsibility” by supporting Chahed, saying that it opposes a change in the head of government in order to preserve government stability.

However, Ennahda has conditioned their support for Chahed on him forsaking his presidential ambitions, meaning their continued backing is unclear.   

Also, it remains to be seen what impact the televised debate on the minister of the interior's vote of confidence will have on the credibility of the whole political class a year before general elections