Tunisian parliament approves government ‘of last resort’
TUNIS - The Tunisian parliament overwhelmingly approved a new government to be led by the country’s youngest prime minister since independence.
Members of parliament voted 167-22, with five lawmakers abstaining, on August 26th to endorse the government.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi rallied the main political and social forces to form the unity government headed by Youssef Chahed, 40, to tackle problems that threaten to derail Tunisia’s path towards a stable democracy since the overthrow of president Zine el- Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
The Chahed cabinet has 27 ministers, including eight women and five ministers under the age of 35.
During the debate that preceded the vote, Chahed gave a frank assessment of the country’s difficult economic situation but promised his cabinet would make tough decisions to spur growth and create jobs.
Tunisia is struggling with slumping tourism earnings following two Islamist militant attacks on foreign tourists last year. Youth unemployment is rampant and workers’ strikes have hurt production of phosphate, the county’s main export. Phosphate production is at 60% below capacity, falling to a 1928 level, Chahed said.
“If the situation continues like this, then in 2017 we will need a policy of austerity and dismiss thousands of public sector employees and impose new taxes,” Chahed told lawmakers before the vote.
He said the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) is predicted to increase 1.5% over last year’s, short of the official target of 2.5%.
The challenges for the government are so daunting that a leader in the influential Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), Bouali Mbarki, called the designated government “Tunisia’s last resort”.
The UGTT is joining a unity government for the first time since 1956 with Mohamed Trabelsi, deputy head of the UGTT, appointed Social Affairs minister in Chahed’s cabinet.
Abid Briki, a former UGTT spokesman, was also selected minister of Governance and Public Service, which is in charge of the government’s bureaucracy of 650,000 employees.
The UGTT is part of the Tunisian quartet that won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for its role in preserving Tunisia’s democratic stability through dialogue and compromise.
The formation of the new government crowned the efforts of Caid Essebsi, who launched the initiative of a Government of National Unity in June amid scepticism and talks that extended more than two months.
Many Tunisians welcomed the nomination of a young prime minister especially when compared with other political leaders. Caid Essebsi is 89 years old and parliament Speaker Mohamed Ennaceur is 82.
The country’s economic and social prospects have been compared to Greece’s in the summer of 2015 but experts point out that Athens had the European Union to bail it out while Tunis has no such support.
“Our economic structure does not stand the comparison with Greece’s economy and we do not have its integration into the European Union structure but the impact of the crisis and the expectations of the Tunisians make our situation worse than Greece’s,” said Rachid Sfar, a former Tunisian prime minister and economist.
He added that “80% of the government’s programme” had already been committed by the previous government of Habib Essid and “we are obliged to implement it”.
Sfar was alluding to a deal signed with the International Monetary Fund for a $2.9 billion loan linked to reforms that include cuts in subsidies, devaluating the dinar, slashing the government bureaucracy and streamlining money-losing state enterprises.
Chahed said he expected the budget deficit to be about $3.2 billion by the end of 2016.
He warned the government would be tough on illegal strikes, which have created havoc in the economy.
“We will not allow interruption of production at any factory and we will be firm and severe in dealing with illegal strikes and sit-ins,” Chahed said.
Despite fragile stability, economic problems and the threat posed by Islamic jihadists, Tunisia remains a beacon of hope in the Arab world. The country is a place where civil liberties are protected by perhaps the most progressive constitution in the region.
“Six years after the fall of the previous regime, Tunisians found themselves in a bottomless pit of problems except the freedom of expression, which does not cure the woes of poverty, joblessness, lack of development and widespread despondency,” wrote Noureddine Bettaïeb, the editor of daily newspaper Echourouk.
“Does Chahed have the ability to give hope and bring back dreams to the hearts of the common Tunisians who have been exhausted by the years of revolution that carried to them gloom, distrust and discouragement?” he asked.