Tunisia’s prime minister-designate forms cabinet across political divisions

Observers pointed to links between cabinet members to Ennahda and Qalb Tounes.
Sunday 05/01/2020
Difficulties ahead. Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli presents his government during a news conference in Tunis, January 2.(AFP)
Difficulties ahead. Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli presents his government during a news conference in Tunis, January 2.(AFP)

TUNIS - After two months of negotiations, Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli announced a 42-member cabinet.

In the protracted process of government formation, Jemli dodged unprecedented infighting within the ruling Islamist Ennahda Movement, overcome objections of political parties and a divide between a maverick president and the Islamist speaker of parliament.

No group, however, offered unqualified support for Jemli’s proposed government, even Ennahda, which nominated him to lead the government. Some activists predicted Jemli would be unable to win approval of parliament for the cabinet.

To pre-empt partisan objections, Jemli fashioned a government of “independent” figures with “no party affiliations.” However, observers pointed to links between cabinet members to Ennahda and Qalb Tounes.

With a splintered political class and lack of clear support, Jemli faces a difficult task of putting the new government to work quickly on socio-economic priorities.

“It is a government of skills and competences to deliver results quickly,” Jemli vowed.

After he was unable to cobble together a cabinet whose members were designated by a coalition of political parties, Jemli turned to “non-political competences” to compose a proposed government line-up.

“We shifted to a non-political cabinet of national competences, a cabinet filled with independent skills, honest competences with experience and who have no partisan links after we faced the difficulties of delicate landscape, a parliament that is pulled in opposite and unprecedented directions and political infighting within various parties,” he said.

Jemli had announced several versions of a proposed cabinet before a list was endorsed January 2 by Tunisian President Kais Saied and sent to parliament for debate.

Ennahda, which won 52 seats in parliamentary elections as the first party in the 217-seat chamber, appointed Jemli almost two months ago with subsequent conflicting orders reflecting battles between its factions over the party’s direction as it prepares for a key leadership congress in May to replace its long-time chief.

Ennahda leaders initially pushed Jemli to form a cabinet of “revolutionary” parties, including the centre-left Attayyar ad-dimokrati and the pan-Arab nationalist Achaab Movement. They excluded any alliance in government with the liberal Qalb Tounes, accusing its leader, media tycoon Nabil Karoui, of being “corrupt” and a “reactionary force that is a throwback to dictatorship.”

Other Ennahda officials, however, saw that an alliance with Qalb Tounes, with 38 seats, the second-largest group in parliament, would make it easier for the Islamists to be part of the government system.

The proposed cabinet lineup signalled a possible agreement between Ennahda and Qalb Tounes, analysts said.

Analysts said an alliance with Ennahda would have advantages for Qalb Tounes, including ending its relative isolation and giving it an image as a responsible party, instead of as personalities with no clear political identity gathered around Karoui.

The cabinet list includes a few magistrates, including Hedi Guediri,  named justice minister; and Sofiene Selliti, named interior minister.

Imed Derouiche, another judge, was picked to be defence minister, former Ambassador to Jordan Khaled Shili was named foreign minister and Fadhel Abdelkefi, an ex-finance minister, was selected for the Ministry of Development and International Cooperation.

Tourism Minister Rene Trabelsi was the only member of the former government to keep his post.

It is not clear whether Ennahda would drum up sufficient support for Jemli’s government, even with Qalb Tounes’s backing. Most groups, including al-Karama Coalition, vowed to withhold support for the cabinet when parliament decided on approval of the cabinet, January 10.

Radical Islamist Al-Karama controls 21 seats in the parliament. Its support for Ennahda was, until recently, a foregone conclusion to allow the Islamists to gather the minimum 109 votes needed to endorse Jemli’s proposed cabinet.

For many analysts, a check of the profiles and paths of the proposed ministers reveals an Ennahda-disguised cabinet, making it difficult for opposition groups to approve it.

“The profile of the cabinet is clearly of Ennahda even when Jemli insists otherwise. Several ministers were members of the cabinets led by Hamadi Jebali and Ali Laarayedh; both leaders were not apolitical independents,” said political writer Houcine Achour.

Jebali and Laarayedh were top Ennahda officials when the party was in government in 2012 and 2013.

Analysts said some Ennahda deputies might break ranks to vote against the proposed government.

“There is no consensus inside Ennahda on the stand of Jemli to form a cabinet of apolitical competences with no ties to political parties,” said Ennahda official and parliament member Samir Dilou.

“President Saied has to get ready to nominate another personality as prime minister in the place of Jemli, who is not up to the task,” said Attayyar’s Ghazi Chaouachi.

The constitution stipulates that, if the prime minister-designate fails to win parliamentary endorsement for his cabinet, the president will initiate talks with political parties and parliamentary blocs to select someone else to form a cabinet.

Analysts said Saied and Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who is Ennahda’s president, have conflicting political agendas.

“The stake is about who is the true leader. Rached Ghannouchi or Kais Saied. Who among the two calls the shots,” said business magazine editor Nizar Bahloul. “It seems that the president aims at dissolving the parliament to call for snap elections while Ghannouchi seeks to avoid a confrontation and prevents the president from encroaching in his power.”

Saied’s former campaign adviser Ridha Chiheb Mekki said the president should call a referendum to change the political regime that scatters powers between parliament, the cabinet and the president, with most power given to parliament.

“It is a failure that repeats itself endlessly since 2011 and the people are suffering from that. President Kais Saied, you face a historic duty because the status quo is not an option and the country cannot afford to wait any longer,” said Mekki.