Tunisia’s PM-designate steers away from partisan cabinet formation

Ennahda does not hide its objections to Mechichi’s approach.
Friday 07/08/2020
Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) receives Prime Minister-Designate Hichem Mechichi  at the Carthage Palace on July 30. (Tunisian Presidency)
Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) receives Prime Minister-Designate Hichem Mechichi at the Carthage Palace on July 30. (Tunisian Presidency)

TUNIS –As Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Hichem Mechichi holds meeting after meeting, it has become increasingly clear, particularly to those engaged in talks with him, that the country is heading towards the formation of a government of national competencies.

The designated premier’s meetings with political figures and representatives of parliamentary blocs in themselves seem like nothing more than political courtesy, as the intention is to gain support for a cabinet that could be formed from outside political parties and parliamentary blocs.

If this proves true, Mechichi will put political parties to a tough choice: Either approve his cabinet, or reject it and face the consequences, including the possible dissolution of parliament.

On Wednesday, Mustapha Ben Ahmed, head of the Tahya Tounes parliamentary bloc, told local media that he was sure Mechichi was looking to form a government of national competencies, noting that his party was open to the move.

Earlier, Tahya Tounes President Youssef Chahed said that his secular party will support the Mechichi government, whether it is partisan or not.

Ben Ahmed praised the prime minister-designate for his modesty, calm and sense of responsibility.

Ben Ahmed indicated that his party’s hour-long meeting with Mechichi was “positive” and that it was an opportunity for a deep exchange of views on the nature and composition of the new cabinet.

Media reports revealed Thursday that Mechichi had made significant headway in choosing the composition of his government, which means the prime minister-designate will not wait until the end of the legal period on August 25 to announce his government.

According to sources involved with government consultations, Mechichi chose a number of names for some ministries, such as the culture ministry, which will likely be assigned to Taoufik Jebali, well-reputed theatre figure and founder of El Teatro Studio.

Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) appoints Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi as the country’s new prime minister,  at the Carthage Palace on July 25. (AFP)
Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) appoints Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi as the country’s new prime minister,  at the Carthage Palace on July 25. (AFP)

The health ministry portfolio, according to the sources, will likely be assigned to Mustapha Ferjani, a highly-respected army general and emergency medicine specialist.

Mustafa Kamel Nabli, a Tunisian economist and former World Bank senior official, has been floated as finance minister, according to the same sources. Nabli served as governor of Tunisia’s Central Bank from January 2011 to June 2012.

The next cabinet is likely to include well-known political figures in addition to those who are not known to the media but internationally and locally recognised as experts in their respective fields.

In recent week, Mechichi has consulted with a number of economic and financial experts and cultural and media figures. The consultations came days after his meetings with Central Bank Governor Marouane Abassi and Ben Ali-era Central Bank Governor Taoufik Baccar, a move that shows the prime minister-designate is prioritising Tunisia’s economic concerns.

He also received the president of the National Union of Tunisian Women, Radhia Jerbi, as well as leaders of key social organisations in the country, namely secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) Noureddine Taboubi, president of the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA) Samir Majoul and president of the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fisheries (UTAP) Abdelmajid Ezzar.

Mechichi met Friday with former heads of government Hamadi Jebali, Ali Laarayedh and Youssef Chahed, as well as with former Presidents Foued Mbazaa and Mohamed Ennaceur.

Mechichi will face many daunting challenges if he is able to achieve his immediate task of cabinet formation despite the chaotic political scene.

The political disputes in the country have led to serious instability, prompting hundreds of foreign and local businessmen to leave Tunisia for safer investment opportunities.

The country’s social climate has also worsened due to state neglect. In recent months, protests in the south have hindered production in the vital phosphate and oil sectors, with political parties resorting to populist stances to absorb the unrest.

The sidelining of political parties, especially those that bear responsibility for the country’s economic and social crisis since the outbreak of Tunisia’s uprising in 2011, especially the Islamist Ennahda Movement, has become a common demand of most politicians and opposition party representatives.

Those in favour of marginalising Islamists argue that the country cannot deal with more disputes and instability. They argue that the country faces too many challenges for parties to continue their internal wrangling.

For them, Tunisia’s priority should be to resolve its multiple crises, even if that means the depreciation of partisan roles in government affairs.

There have been media reports that Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi could resign as parliament speaker in recent weeks, especially after the resignation of his chief of staff.

Speaking to The Arab Weekly, head of the Reform Bloc in Tunisia’s parliament Hassouna al-Nasfi stressed “the need for ensuring stability by forming a government of non-partisan national competencies.”

A file picture of Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi , July 30. (AFP)
A file picture of Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi , July 30. (AFP)

According to Nasfi, Ennahda should be left out of the formation of the next government, noting that Islamists have always resorted to “the policy of intimidation every time they faced a difficult political struggle.”

Earlier in the week, Nasfi told  local media that “the country needs a political truce and the guarantee of social and economic security.”

“Mechichi must take into account the political fragmentation and the absence of a clear majority capable of governing,” he said.

“The optimal solution is to form a government of independent experts.”

Tunisia’s political parties are in the crosshairs of popular and official accusations, especially from President Kais Said.

In late July, the country’s political crisis reached its peak when deputies held a no-confidence vote in an attempt to remove Ghannouchi from his position as parliament speaker. The draft motion to withdraw confidence was eventually rejected, collecting 97 votes in favour and 16 against.

The developments in parliament triggered criticism of some political figures and the public, who accused parties of focusing on partisan interests at a time when the country is struggling to address an economic slowdown and security threats, including potential spillover from the conflict in neighbouring Libya that shows no signs of waning.

Earlier this week, Mechichi said that his government’s programme is more important than its composition, expressing hope that it will bring forth economic and social achievement.

The next government needs “to stop the bleeding at the level of economic and social indicators,” he said.

“Political differences continue, and they may be explained by the nature of the political system that we have chosen, and the divisions that exist on the political scene in general,” Mechichi added.

“In light of these differences, we try to find the right combination that brings together the various positive propositions that have been discussed,” he said.

Against all expectations, Saied named Mechichi, the country’s 46-year old interior minister, to be the next prime minister on July 25, giving him 30 days to form a cabinet.

If the government does not win the MPs’ vote of confidence, the president will have to call for early elections.

According to experts, Ennahda will do its best to avoid such a scenario, as new elections could weaken its influence and potentially leave the party with less seats than its nemesis, the Free Destourian Party (PDL) of Abir Moussi.

Repeat elections could also cause Ennahda’s allies — Qalb Tounes and The Dignity coalition –to emerge weaker, further jeopardising the Islamist party’s influence.

However, for now, Ennahda has stubbornly insisted on maintaining a party representation-based government, with its leader Ghannouchi hinting earlier this week that he remains opposed to Mechichi’s approach.

“Democracy is not the rule of democratic competencies, it is rather the rule of political parties,” Ghannouchi said on Wednesday, responding to Mechichi’s statements about the need for the formation of a government capable of resolving the country’s economic and social crises.

Ghannouchi also noted that political parties have competencies, stressing that Mechichi needs to choose his cabinet ministers from within political parties.

It remains to be seen if Ennahda will stick to this course and eventually exert pressure on the prime minister-designate to give in to its demands.

If Ennahda resorts to pressure and intimidation as usual, this could lead to further frustration among Tunisians and opposition parties, prompting the president to again intervene to ease tensions and resolve the crisis.