Tunisia’s PM upstages critics and launches war on graft
Tunis - Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has appeared to struggle to meet the country’s socio-economic challenges since he took office 11 months ago and became the country’s youngest head of government in decades.
As head of a national unity government, Chahed, 41, was supposed to be backed by four important political groups that have a majority in parliament as well as two leading social organisations. That support was only lukewarm as the prime minister was confronted by a tense social climate and a sceptical public.
At least twice his office had to issue statements to scotch rumours that he was stepping down.
Chahed appeared isolated in the face of protesting youths clamouring for jobs and more state funding for development in the southern region of Tataouine. The protesters moved to El Kamour area where the main oil pipelines in Tunisia lie. They attempted to choke the flow of oil on May 22, triggering alarm in Tunis where security officials presented evidence on television for what they described as the collusion of shadowy businesspeople with the protesters.
Chahed huddled with his top security aides on May 23 to discuss details of a plan to arrest businessman Chafik Jarraya, suspected of subsidising the unrest in the Tunisian south and of maintaining ties with radical Libyan Islamists.
The arrest by an elite police unit was followed by the detention of seven other businessmen suspected of graft and smuggling. The move transformed Chahed’s political fortunes and boosted his standing in the eyes of many Tunisians. An opinion poll showed public support for the arrests at more than 90%.
Wealthy women rubbed shoulders with activists from working-class districts to chant “Chahed, son of the Tunisian people” in a rally on May 26 near his office in the Kasbah district of Tunis. They waved placards and banners stating “Chahed = Courage of the State” or “Sweep,” a reference to his promised war on corruption.
Sceptics argued that Chahed ordered the arrests of Jarraya and others in a bid to conceal his government’s failure to jump-start economic growth, tackle regional marginalisation and address massive unemployment and rampant corruption and nepotism.
“The assessment we made eight months ago is that there is a clear connection between terrorism, smuggling and financial and tax corruption,” Chahed told a local newspaper on June 4. “The growth rate is tied to the fight against corruption and the state budget revenues are also tied to the same fight against corruption.”
Following the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 at the beginning of the “Arab spring,” Tunisia won praise abroad for its transition to democracy.
However, key socio-economic challenges are still to be addressed and the government must manage the frustrations of ordinary Tunisians. Mindful that it was poverty and lack of economic opportunity that led to the fall of the previous regime, the government has to heed the recommendations of international financial backers to launch bold reforms that are likely to fuel popular unrest.
Beyond the political benefits that Chahed could reap from the fight against corruption, tackling corruption is crucial for Tunisia’s social and political stability.
“While Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s national unity government has expressed its strong determination to fight corruption and reinvigorate the economy, it has repeatedly run into roadblocks,” said an International Crisis Group report on May 10.
The report quoted a former prime minister’s adviser as saying: “During the 2011-15 period we knew that the networks of business people were strong but we knew that we were on top of them.”
“It is not the case today. A businessman with plenty of cash is able now to blow a political party up. The result is a feeling that the state is functioning ‘in a mafia manner’ that is widespread among the population and the confidence of Youssef Chahed’s government of national unity has been in constant decline,” the adviser was quoted as adding.
The report added that “while macro-economic indicators are deteriorating, struggles are intensifying among businesspeople whose hidden influence on the political scene and protest movements continues to grow.”
It cited an expert as saying: “Before 2011, there was, on one hand, the state and its honest representatives who enjoyed respect and, on the other hand, there were the mafiosis, namely the Trabelsi family who were hated. Today, the state itself is perceived as a mafia. There is no distinction between the state and the mafia.”
Chahed’s campaign has received wide public support. “It is too early to pass judgment on the campaign against corruption but it is a breakthrough in the political life as it is giving back trust and hope to the citizens who had lost hope that the government could arrest, jail and seize the assets of the symbols of corruption,” wrote Nouri al-Sal, a columnist with the Arabic-language daily Al-Chourouk.
Politicians from all sides applauded and voiced support. Some linked Chahed’s battle against corruption to his political survival instincts.
“Failure in the war against corruption will be followed by his resignation from the position of prime minister,” said Mohamed Abbou, a former minister who leads the leftist Democratic Current party.
Mongi Rahoui, a leftist parliament member, said: “The war against corruption has begun and the government does not have the right to recoil.”
Chahed promised Tunisians his efforts would bear fruits in 2019 — year of the next presidential elections.
“When 2019 dawns upon us, we will have put Tunisia on the path of growth, definitely won the war against terrorism and done the same with corruption,” Chahed told Essabah daily.