Tunisia’s leaders jostle for power amid coronavirus crisis

“We are at war. We can’t afford nihilism and indifference.” - Elyes Fakhfakh
Sunday 29/03/2020
Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh speaks during a news conference in Carthage, last February. (AFP)
Managing the crisis. Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh speaks during a news conference in Carthage, last February. (AFP)

TUNIS - The coronavirus pandemic in Tunisia triggered frantic mobilisation to deal with the public health crisis but also set off intense jockeying for primacy between the three branches of government.

The country’s three main leaders — President Kais Saied, Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh and parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi — warned that Tunisia “is at war” with the novel coronavirus. However, overlapping claims of power by the three leaders left many Tunisians confused about how the government intends to address the crisis.

With Tunisia under general quarantine and most businesses and industries closed, Saied and Ghannouchi have been reviewing strategies but do not seem to have determined plans.

Fakhfakh, in office just one month, has led the government’s response to the outbreak. Observers said his pragmatic approach to addressing the pandemic has been more convincing than Saied’s vague pronouncements.

Fakhfakh’s appointment as prime minister came four months after parliamentary and presidential elections and a government-formation process that exposed a power struggle between Saied and Ghannouchi, who heads the Islamist Ennahda Movement.

Parliament has approved “exceptional measures” to keep the legislative body working during the health emergency by swiftly voting on measures proposed by the government.

In a clear pushback against Fakhfakh taking the lead during the crisis, parliament virtually shelved the prime minister’s proposal by putting it on the regular legislative track.

Ghannouchi’s move, described by critics as “Machiavellian,” was backed by 122 parliament members, suggesting that Qalb Tounes sided with Ennahda and its Islamist allies against Fakhfakh and reinforces the point that Saied and Fakhfakh are supported by a minority in parliament.

Despite having the largest number of seats (54) in Tunisia’s 217-member parliament legislative body, Ennahda has found itself increasingly isolated when not backed by Qalb Tounes, as smaller parties align against it.

During negotiations to form a government, Fakhfakh dismissed most of Ennahda’s demands, including a larger share of the cabinet and to include Qalb Tounes, parliament’s second-largest party, in government.

Ennahda voted for Fakhfakh’s government, however, to avoid early elections that would have provided Saied an opportunity to effectively rule by decree.

Ennahda has been suspicious of Saied’s pledge to alter the Tunisian political system into a more presidential formation. Saied has also called for changing election laws that underpin Ennahda’s dominance in Tunisian politics.

While Saied has no political party or particular support base in parliament, analysts said his supporters plan to create a party that would allow Saied to convert his strong public opinion ratings into a concrete platform.

Fakhfakh does not have a strong partisan base or backing in parliament, either. He relied on Saied’s popularity and antagonism towards Ennahda as he formed a government.

The coronavirus crisis seems to have helped Fakhfakh strengthen his position, however, leaving Ghannouchi confined mostly to a diplomatic role, in which he reached out to countries affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Turkey and Qatar.

Ghannouchi has also been challenged by members of his own party. Health Minister Abdellatif Mekki, a senior Ennahda official, has taken charge of the medical response to the coronavirus outbreak, giving daily briefings in his doctor’s uniform.

Mekki was removed by Ghannouchi from the parliamentary election list last year in an effort to sideline him.

Ghannouchi is seen as being out of step with the crisis. A recent image of Ghannouchi rubbing his eyes and shaking hands with visitors at his office went viral on social media, with many commenting that he was out of sync with measures needed to halt coronavirus transmission.

Fakhfakh is seeking special powers over certain finance and business policies, amnesty and individual freedoms. He and his ministers insist that, without such powers, the government is unable to address economic and social effects of the pandemic.

They said parliament takes three months, on average, to approve legislative proposals while the government needs urgent decisions, including approval of foreign loans to pay worker wages, postponement of tax payments by companies as well as financial schemes for workers made redundant by closed businesses.

“Our country is experiencing an exceptional situation by all standards,” said Fakhfakh. “We will ask the parliament to grant the government the power to issue decrees in order to take urgent measures under the Article 70 of the constitution.”

“We are at war. We can’t afford nihilism and indifference,” he warned.

Mohamed Abbou, a government minister and leader of the Democratic Current, said he was in favour of Fakhfakh’s proposition because it was necessary to give the prime minister power to rule by decree, given the uncertainties ahead.

“The parliament may not be able to meet in the future because of the crisis and a vote by teleconferencing is controversial. The situation needs the government rules by decrees to act with efficacy in the face of the epidemic,” Abbou said.

“If the draft law related to loans the Tunisia state received from abroad is not approved, we will not be able to pay salaries of government employees. Imagine the situation of more than 650,000 employees not getting their salaries. It is a matter of national security,” he said.

Most parties voiced at least qualified support for Fakhfakh’s move. However, Ennahda said there was no need to grant the prime minister special powers when he already has “huge powers” allowing him “to lead.”

Some in the parliament accused Ghannouchi of trying to preserve his influence at the expense of the national interest.

Samia Abbou, a Democratic Current MP, lashed out at Ghannouchi and his supporters: “You are scared. You are shaking from your cap down to your trainers. You are striving to protect your power. This place is no parliament anymore. You have belittled it,” she said.

Tunisians remain wary about the political infighting as the country’s economic challenges are expected to worsen.

“It is difficult to believe that Ghannouchi is defending democracy in rejecting Fakhfakh’s proposal to rule by decree, which is full of traps and raises more questions about his real intentions,” said Nizar Bahloul, editor of Online Business News magazine.

“It is clear that we are careening towards a political crisis between the legislative and executive branches of the government.”