Tunisian president withholds support from prime minister as infighting intensifies within Nidaa Tounes

The prime minister, who has the backing of Ennahda and a faction of Nidaa Tounes, is also unlikely to step down without a fight.
Tuesday 17/07/2018
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi(L) and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed attend the Tunisian naval forces military intervention drill on June 25, 2018. (AFP)
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi(L) and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed attend the Tunisian naval forces military intervention drill on June 25, 2018. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi expressed disapproval of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s record, a move seen as aimed at blocking Chahed’s presidential ambitions as infighting worsened among rival factions in the Nidda Tounes political party.

Caid Essebsi outlined what he said were faults in decisions made by Chahed, including sacking the interior minister and his handling of Tunisia’s economic difficulties.

In an interview aired July 15 by a local television station, Caid Essebsi suggested Chahed’s limited success as prime minister did not lead to support for Chahed as a potential presidential candidate next year.

The Assabah newspaper reported that Caid Essebsi “sided with his son” Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the executive director of Nidaa Tounes, when Chahed challenged the latter’s leadership. Chahed told Hafedh Caid Essebsi that he had no right to speak in the name of the party

Chahed's defiant stand and Beji Caid Essebsi’s exposure to Nidaa Tounes infighting put Tunisia in an unclear course ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

“I know the interior minister (Lotfi Brahem). He is an excellent official in his job,” said Beji Caid Essebsi. “His departure should have been put off to coincide with a future reshuffle of the cabinet. Its timing was not good. I salute the former interior minister for his good job.

“However, he (the prime minister) was adamant about removing him. I told him to assume his responsibility in doing so,” added Beji Caid Essebsi.

Brahem’s supporters alleged the minister’s sacking on June 6 was to settle scores between political factions. There were allegations that his firing weakened national security.

A few weeks after he was removed from office, a terrorist attack on the Algerian border killed six members of Tunisia’s National Guard. The Tunisian branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Uqba ibn Nafi battalion, claimed responsibility for the July 8 ambush.

“The change of the head of the division of tactical intelligence and the antiterrorism administration chief at the Interior ministry could have waited for another time. It is likely that change had an effect in the attack. There are people who say so,” Beji Caid Essebsi said.

Asked about the country’s social and economic situation under Chahed’s policies, the president said: “There is a consensus that the situation is not good and it cannot continue as it is. The situation is fragile and warrants a wake-up.”

Caid Essebsi described Chahed, at 42 Tunisia’s youngest head of government in six decades, as shutting himself off from social and political forces, including Nidaa Tounes, and preserving only the backing of the Islamist Ennahda Movement.

“A majority of parties and social organisations want the cabinet and its head to be changed while an important movement, Ennahda, wants him to stay,” Caid Essebsi said.

“The situation cannot continue this way. It is clear the government has problems with the trade unions and with Nidaa Tounes. We have to get out from this situation as soon as possible but we have to preserve the participation of everybody, including Ennahda.”

“He (Chahed) has to resign or seek a confidence vote from parliament,” Caid Essebsi said.

Political factions that want to remove Chahed as prime minister are likely to find alternatives difficult. A no-confidence vote will not come easy. Ennahda, which has the largest number of seats in the parliament, is likely to seek a steep price in exchange for abandoning Chahed.

The prime minister is unlikely to step down without a fight at a time when, in addition to Ennahda’s backing, there is a Nidaa Tounes faction supporting him. Political observers also predict international lenders showing favour for Chahed with loans and grants worth billions of dollars in recent weeks.

Caid Essebsi suggested that Chahed and his allies have had a hand in the Nidaa Tounes infighting, which is threatening the position of Hafedh Caid Essebsi as party leader.

“Someone in the position of power should not get involved in the freedom of political activity of a party,” the president said. “It is clear there is a hand stirring the party’s recent crisis.”

Nidaa Tounes, founded by Beji Caid Essebsi in 2012, has broken into four factions since Caid Essebsi was elected president in 2014. The party was threatened with a fifth split after members of its political bureau issued a statement emphasising the importance of preserving “the stability of the government,” a position that seemed to contradict Hafedh Caid Essebsi, who has been seeking to unseat Chahed.

Beji Caid Essebsi said most political problems in Tunisia, including the Nidaa Tounes infighting, were fuelled by presidential ambitions.

“All the eyes are on the 2019 elections, which are a scourge for the country. If someone wants the power in 2019, he must think about being successful now. He will not win in 2019 if he does not achieve success now,” Caid Essebsi said in an allusion to Chahed.

“If you do not succeed in 2017 or 2018 when you have the power, what could you add in 2019 if you fail to do the right things now?”

Caid Essebsi, 91, warned: “I have the right to be a candidate. I will not say whether I will be a candidate or not until the last moment of the legal deadline for submitting candidacies.”