Tunisian PM sacks interior minister amid tensions with president

Sources close to the premier’s office told local media that the interior minister’s sacking follows the latter’s attempts to replace many high-ranking security officials.
Wednesday 06/01/2021
Tunisia’s dismissed Interior Minister Taoufik Charfeddine gives a joint press conference in the capital Tunis, on November 6, 2020.( AFP)
Tunisia’s dismissed Interior Minister Taoufik Charfeddine gives a joint press conference in the capital Tunis, on November 6, 2020.( AFP)

TUNIS--Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi on Tuesday sacked his interior minister, who is reputed to be close to President Kais Saied, a move underscoring tensions at the top of the country’s leadership.

Saied and Mechichi are at odds over their respective powers and political alliances. With the dismissal of Interior Minister Taoufik Charfeddine, the pressures could mushroom into a crisis threatening a collapse of the technocratic government.

A cabinet statement said Mechichi would supervise the interior ministry on an interim basis pending the appointment of Charfeddine’s successor. No reasons were given for his removal. But speculation was rife on social media and television about the motives for the sudden move.

 Many theories 

Sources close to the premier’s office told local media that the interior minister’s sacking follows the latter’s attempts to replace many high-ranking security officials, including police and intelligence district and department heads as well as senior National Guard figures.

According to the same sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Charfeddine sent a telegram to remove high-ranking officials without prior consultation with the prime minister. The latter then proceeded to freeze the decisions of his interior minister before announcing his dismissal.

Charfeddine’s sacking signals an unprecedented escalation of tensions between the presidency and the premier’s office. Observers argue that with this latest move, Mechichi has moved from taking blows to the counter-offensive, if he is not on the offensive.

After a meeting with senior security officials at the Ministry of Interior, Mechichi said Wednesday that he will not tolerate attempts to “confuse the security institution,” stressing the need to “respect its senior officials and employees.”

In his media statement, Mechichi added, “The security structure at the Ministry of Interior is coherent and I will not tolerate attempts to confuse it, especially at this current critical juncture that the country is witnessing.”

"There was a possibility that the security institution be infiltrated by changing such a large number of senior officials ... without my knowledge or the knowledge of the ministry of the interior's senior cadres,” he said.

Another theory attributes the new tensions to statements made by Saied during a visit to the interior ministry on New Year’s Eve. Said claimed full control of the internal security forces, which he considers to be part of the armed forces, of which he is the supreme leader, as per the constitution.

Mechichi apparently interpreted the president’s move as yet another attempt to grab more power and encroach on his prerogatives, considering that his interior minister was no longer reliable, having aligned himself with the president.

Other sources attributed Charfeddine’s firing to his strained ties with some of the parliamentary blocs supporting the cabinet, including Ennahda’s Islamists.

Looming reshuffle

Mechichi is expected in the coming weeks to reshuffle his cabinet amid demands from pro-government parties in parliament to include party figures in the government. Opposition parties and the presidency want a continued technocratic cabinet.

Parliament approved a technocratic government in a confidence vote four months ago, hoping to end months of political instability and focus on tackling worsening economic and social problems.

Though Saied proposed Mechichi as a premier in the new government, Tunisian politicians said he subsequently withdrew his support, underlining brewing tensions between the presidency and government.

While previous bouts of political discord in Tunisia focused on the split between secularists and Islamists, or over economic reforms, more recent tensions seem rooted in the division of powers between president and parliament.

 Social unrest 

Protest movements continue in several cities across Tunisia. On January 7, a general strike is scheduled in Gafsa, a defiant central-west province, to denounce the broken promises of successive governments.

Another strike is scheduled for January 12 in Sfax, the country’s second largest city, according to the UGTT trade union.

To break the social and political deadlock, Saied said at the end of December that he was in favour of holding a national dialogue, proposed by the UGTT “to find solutions to political, economic and social problems.”

Ten years ago, massive protests against poverty, marginalisation and unemployment brought down the regime of the late President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The Tunisian revolution triggered the “Arab spring” uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria.

Despite that, Tunisia is an example of peaceful transition in a region struggling elsewhere with violence and upheaval.

However, the North African nation’s economy has since been crippled by high debt and deteriorating public services, made worse by the global coronavirus pandemic.