Tunisia’s cabinet reshuffle widens divide between president and prime minister

Caid Essebsi, appearing November 8 at a news conference, said he would not oppose the government’s change if it is endorsed by parliament.
Sunday 11/11/2018
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi gives a news conference on the cabinet reshuffle at the Carthage Palace near Tunis, on November 8.		    (AFP)
Fractious politics. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi gives a news conference on the cabinet reshuffle at the Carthage Palace near Tunis, on November 8. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s reshuffled cabinet has become an issue of contention between him and President Beji Caid Essebsi.

Chahed, appointed as prime minister two years ago, has established himself as one of Tunisia’s most influential politicians of the very splintered secularist camp.

At 42, he is the youngest Tunisian prime minister in six decades but Chahed is without an organised political party and has no record in the nationalist struggle for independence or the fight for human rights and freedoms during the rule of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

The anti-Islamist camp fears his rise ahead of next year’s elections could further split secularists and leave the Islamist Ennahda Movement with a better chance to score well in the 2019 vote.

Some, even in the president’s inner circle, see Chahed as edging too close to the Islamists after the demise of Ennahda’s entente with Caid Essebsi. Noureddine Ben Ticha, a top political adviser to Caid Essebsi, said: “We can say clearly today that this government is Ennahda’s government.”

“The crux of the matter is that the prime minister has a project to offer to the Tunisians in the presidential and parliamentarian elections next year,” said “The political project of Youssef Chahed is the first open secret in Tunisia. Almost everyone in Tunisia is aware of it and can guess its outlines but Chahed himself does not want to declare it and his aides only allude to it,” said political analyst Zied Krichen Krichen, adding that Chahed might face Caid Essebsi, 91, in the presidential race.

Chahed selected ten new ministers and eight new junior ministers on November 5 from three political groups, including Ennahda.

His allies in the parliament and the political groups with ministers named in the cabinet have 121 deputies in the 217-member parliament. Caid Essebsi, appearing November 8 at a news conference — his first in four years as president — said he would not oppose the government’s change if it is endorsed by parliament and would not attempt to prevent the swearing-in of its members.

But Caid Essebsi expressed bitterness about Chahed’s approach in reshuffling the cabinet and in his dealing with him about it.

“I watched on the television announcing the list of the reshuffled cabinet. It is my right to not agreeing with that and I disagree with this approach. Why things are rushed like that?” he asked.

 “They (Chahed’s aides) sent the list of the reshuffled cabinet to the parliament bypassing the tradition that the presidency receives it first and passes it on to the parliament,” Caid Essebsi said. “I would have sent it to the parliament anyway. We have a high esteem and regard of the authority and the prestige of the state. I do not want people abroad to see our state as a banana republic.”

Caid Essebsi appeared to convey to the public his views of Chahed by way of comparison to himself.

“We are not on equal footing (with the prime minister),” he said. “I’m the president of the state and the position of the state president must be respected. I’m above the political parties.”

Caid Essebsi added: “Me, I’m not clinging to the power and if it required that I shall leave, I will step down. I put Tunisia’s interests above any other consideration.”

Chahed kept key defence, foreign affairs, interior and finance portfolios unchanged. He cannot constitutionally name new ministers of defence or foreign affairs without consulting with the president.

He selected as minister in charge of human rights Mohamed Fadhel Mahfoudh, the former head of Tunisia’s bar association who was among four Tunisians whose civil society groups were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.

Chahed named Paris-based businessman Rene Trabelsi tourism minister, making him the first member of the country’s Jewish community to gain a ministerial job since Tunisia’s independence in 1956.

“This reshuffle is to make the work of government more effective and to put an end to the political and economic crisis,” Chahed said in a statement.

Nidaa Tounes was founded by Caid Essebsi and is led by the president’s son Hafedh, who has spoken out publicly against Chahed’s government’s “many failures.”

Tunisia has been mired in an economic slump and social depression since an uprising in 2011 ousted Ben Ali as president. Nine governments since then have been unable to deal with the country’s woes.

Chahed, to lure backing of the former Ben Ali supporters in the key Sahel region, appointed Kamel Morjane, who served as defence (2005-10) and foreign minister (2010-11) under Ben Ali, as minister in charge of the public service and administrative modernisation. Morjane, who leads the centrist El Moubadara party, has hinted he might run for president next year.

Chahed kept Education Minister Hatem Ben Salem and Finance Minister Ridha Chalghoum, who were ministers under Ben Ali, in their positions.

However, in a sign of the political crisis, no supporter of Hafedh Caid Essebsi was picked for the new cabinet, meaning Nidaa Tounes, which had named Chahed as one of its senior officials is now in the opposition — a harbinger of possible intensified infighting.

Nidaa Tounes backed Chahed as prime minister in 2016 with the hope of improving the country’s economic and social climate and bolster the party’s chances in parliamentarian and presidential elections in 2019. The party suspended Chahed’s membership in September.

Besides the parliamentary opposition, Chahed worries about the future stances of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) which are powerful enough to besiege the government with strikes and social protests. The UGTT has called for a general strike of 650,000 civil servants planned for November 22 over salary hikes.