Tunisia’s prime minister wins crucial vote over cabinet reshuffle

Analysts say Tunisia's prime minister tried to cast the net far and wide for support to advance his political future.
Tuesday 13/11/2018
Tunisia's Prime Minister Youssef Chahed arrives at a plenary session at the Assembly of People's Representatives in Tunis, on November 12. (Reuters)
Tunisia's Prime Minister Youssef Chahed arrives at a plenary session at the Assembly of People's Representatives in Tunis, on November 12. (Reuters)

TUNIS - The Tunisian parliament has approved a cabinet reshuffle proposed by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

The endorsement by a large majority of deputies on November 12 ended the political crisis around the government, at least for now.

The Tunisian prime minister also demonstrated a larger backing in parliament and maybe, also, as leader of a fractious secularist camp ahead of crucial elections next year.

Chahed had named 10 new ministers and eight secretaries of state on November 5 in a large cabinet reshuffle with the underlying aim of imposing his leadership of the cabinet over differences with President Beji Caid Essebsi and rivals in Nidaa Tounes, the leading secularist party. Some of the ministerial nominees received 132 votes in the 217-member parliament ——higher than the majority of 109 votes needed, a reflection of the wide margin of support he enjoyed in the parliament from secularists and Ennahdha’s Islamists.

He appointed the ministers from three political groups, including Ennahda, which together have 121 members in the parliament.

Chahed kept key defence, foreign affairs, interior and finance portfolios unchanged as he could not constitutionally appoint new ministers in these portfolios without consulting the president.

Analysts say the prime minister tried to cast the net far and wide for support to advance his political future beyond the urgency of winning parliamentary backing for the reshuffle.

He named as minister in charge of human rights Mohamed Fadhel Mahfoudh, the former head of Tunisia’s bar association who was of one of four Tunisians whose civil society groups were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.

Chahed also appointed Paris-based businessman Rene Trabelsi tourism minister, making him the first member of the country’s Jewish community to gain a ministerial job since Tunisia’s independence in 1956.

Trablesi won 127 votes in favour of his appointment despite accusations by leftist activists of support for normalisation with Israel. His approval by parliament showed the resilience of tolerance and peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews in Tunisia despite the raging violence in the Middle East.

To lure backing of supporters of former ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the key Sahel region, Chahed picked Kamel Morjane as minister in charge of the public service and administrative modernisation. He had served as defence (2005-10) and foreign minister (2010-11) under Ben Ali. Morjane, who leads the centrist El Moubadara party, has hinted he might run for president next year.

Chahed kept Education Minister Hatem Ben Salem and Finance Minister Ridha Chalghoum, who were ministers under Ben Ali, in their positions.

The prime minister pledged to uphold good relations with President Beji Caid Essebsi, who had voiced bitterness over the prime minister’s dealing with him in reshuffling the government.

Chahed promised to turn around the economic slump and social depression, arguing that his government would have achieved better results were not the political wrangling and the “continuing friendly fires” against him and his ministers.”

“We saved the country from a disaster,” Chahed said, citing the high budget deficit of 7.4% in 2016 when he was appointed prime minister. He expected that deficit to be at around 4% this year.

He said Tunisia expected tourist visits to reach 9 million for the first time next year, as the country’s tourism industry recovers following two deadly terrorist attacks in 2015.

Around 6.2 million tourists visited Tunisia in the first nine months of this year, up 16.95% from the same period of last year, in a rebound from the impact of the attacks.

Tunisia expects tourist visits to reach 8 million for all of 2018, the prime minister said.

“We hope that this recovery continues and to see about 9 million tourists in 2019,” Chahed told parliament.

Major European tour operators have resumed activities in Tunisia, after three years of shunning the country following the attack on a beach in Sousse that killed 39 tourists in June 2015 and a separate attack at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis three months earlier that killed 22 people, mostly foreigners.

Chahed’s backers hinted that the prime minister might now be competing politically with the president and his son Hafedh Beji Caid Essbsi who leads the rump of Nidaa Tounes.

“After this vote, now it is time to build the big political party. That will not come with improvisation and at a lucky strike. No place or role for those amateurs to lead us to the abyss,” said Sahbi Ben Fredj, an MP from the National Coalition dubbed as “Chahed’s nascent party.”

However, for some lawmakers, Chahed’s victory was a ”coup” against his mentor, Beji Caid Essebsi.

“You staged a coup against Beji Caid Essebsi… Beji appointed you as prime minister when you had nothing in terms of political power. You betrayed him,” said MP Samia Abbou from the opposition Democratic Current.

She echoed resentment running high among Nidaa’s loyalists who see Chahed’s de facto alliance with Ennahdha’s Islamists as a form of “betrayal” and as an unjustified reversal of their party’s victory in the 2014 legislative elections.

“This reshuffle is a coup against the winning party in the 2014 elections… Chahed did not consult with Nidaa Tounes about this reshuffle,” Sofiane Toubel, an official in Nidaa Tounes, said.

The parliamentary victory of Chahed gives the prime minister a mandate to introduce the economic reforms he has pledged but leaves Nidaa Tounes in utter confusion over the direction to take a year before legislative and presidential elections.