Tunisia’s new leader raises eyebrows as he gives short shrift to ministers

The sacking of Zbidi and Jhinaoui was praised by Saied’s allies as a step towards revamping Tunisia’s diplomatic and security strategy.
Sunday 03/11/2019
Unpredictable moves. Tunisian President Kais Saied (2nd-L) inspects the guard of honour upon his arrival at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, October 23.(DPA)
Unpredictable moves. Tunisian President Kais Saied (2nd-L) inspects the guard of honour upon his arrival at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, October 23.(DPA)

TUNIS - Tunisian President Kais Saied fired two key ministers less than a week after taking office as he seeks to chart a new course as commander-in-chief.

Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi and Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui were relieved of their duties October 29 by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed after consultation with Saied, a statement from Chahed’s office said.

Both foreign policy and military issues are within the president’s constitutionally ordained prerogatives.

 Zbidi and Jhinaoui both said they had already resigned from their posts, raising questions about the president’s leadership style and policy direction.

Saied, a retired law lecturer, became Tunisia’s second freely elected leader October 22 after a resounding victory in presidential elections. Bolstered by support from young Tunisians, the conservative jurist, who ran with no party and a limited budget, outperformed dozens of established political figures, including Zbidi.

Saied, who was elected with more than 70% of the popular vote, has set out to curb corruption, decentralise governance and strengthen ties with Tunisia’s Arab and African allies.

The sacking of Zbidi and Jhinaoui was praised by some of Saied’s Islamist and leftist allies as a step towards revamping Tunisia’s diplomatic and security strategy but it sparked concern among others who took issue with how the dismissals were handled.

Zbidi, who submitted his resignation before running for president in September, said he felt “relief after they freed me from the job” but was “troubled as far as the nation’s affairs and policy are concerned.”

Zbidi said he reminded Saied of his “already submitted resignation” October 29 but that the president asked him “to stay on and gave me no impression I would be fired.

“One hour later, he contacted me to tell me that I will be replaced in a reshuffle.”

“What worries me is the abrupt change in the president’s decisions, 180 degrees. One cannot be at the top ladder of leadership and take decisions that way and change his mind one hour later,” he added.

However, Zbidi insisted his relationship with the president remains “excellent.”

“I was a dean of the university for five years where he was a faculty teacher,” Zbidi said. “We have known each other for five years and we have a family relationship as well.”

Zbidi said his firing was likely the work of Chahed, who has been at odds with him since the two butted heads in the contentious presidential election cycle.

However, analysts said Zbidi had no shortage of enemies, including Islamists and allied parties. “It seems that the time of reckoning has come,” said Ghazi Chaouachi, secretary-general of the centre-left Democratic Current party, in reference to the sacking.  His perceived indiscretions about sensitive issues in the conduct of his duties raised concerns.

In particular, Zbidi drew the ire of Islamists after revealing in a televised interview in September that he had considered using military force to stop what he saw as a suspected plot by Islamists in parliament to oversee a rushed presidential transition after President Beji Caid Essebsi fell ill in June.

Zbidi said the army had been ready to “prevent parliament from convening” to ensure “there would be no coup, military or legislative.”

A number of observers viewed the firing of Jhinaoui, who has been assailed by Islamists, nationalists and leftists for a previous diplomatic assignment in Israel, as unfair and as “staged humiliation” by Saied, who has said normalisation with Israel is tantamount to treason.

“The firing of Jhinaoui is a clear message from Saied to all proponents of the normalisation with the Zionists and we back him on that,” said Yadh Elloumi, a senior official in the liberal Qalb Tounes party, headed by media executive Nabil Karoui, who lost to Saied in the presidential runoff.

“Jhinaoui is known as the normaliser with the Zionists and his ouster is evidence of a new foreign policy that confronts normalisation,” he added.  Some members of Qalb Tounes distanced themselves from Elloumi’s remarks, saying they reflected his personal views only.

Jhinaoui, a distinguished career diplomat, supervised Tunisia’s liaison office in Tel Aviv in the early 1990s after the Oslo Accords were signed and Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation formally recognised each other for the first time.

Many in the region at that time said building ties with Israel was a step towards ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That mood has changed after 20 years of negotiations have seen Israel expand settlements and further restrict Palestinians.

Jhinaoui, who had been sidelined during a meeting October 28 between German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Tunisian officials, wrote an angry resignation letter October 29.

Jhinaoui was replaced on an interim basis by junior minister Sabri Bachtobji, while Justice Minister Mohamed Karim Jamoussi temporarily took over the Defence Ministry, pending the formation of a new government, likely in December.

Saied had his first meeting on the Libyan conflict October 29 with President of the Libya High Council Khaled al-Mechri, who is a leader of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. That move was likely to please Tunisian Islamists and draw the ire of Libyan National Army Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who heads a rival eastern-based government and is fighting to win control of Tripoli. Although Saied has stressed his support to “legitimacy” in Libya, it remains to be seen what kind of policy he  adopts towards the neighbouring country.

A short-lived controversy erupted over the unceremonious exit of members of Caid Essebsi’s former staff. Two days later, Saied ended the controversy when he met with outgoing members of the Tunisian cabinet to thank them for their service.