Unity government a challenge for Tunisia’s president

Sunday 03/07/2016
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (L) meets with the Secretary-General of the Tunisian General Labour Union Houcine Abassi in early June.

Tunis - Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi put his po­litical capital and the for­tunes of the Nidaa Tounes party he founded on the line by calling for a unity govern­ment to address the country’s eco­nomic woes.
Caid Essebsi’s supporters — and many of his opponents — expected the initiative would within days yield a strong government backed by main political groups and social organisations since the consensus about the country’s crisis and the need for unity is obvious.
On June 2nd, Caid Essebsi called on politicians, trade unions and employers’ groups to create a unity government.
The government announced a number of legislative initiatives but has been unable to implement many economic reforms. Socioeco­nomic frustrations, which led to the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali as president in 2011, had been exacerbated by the deepening cri­sis.
A fragile security situation has contributed to economic stagna­tion. Jihadist attacks in 2015 caused an abrupt and deep deterioration of the country’s tourism industry. Of­ficials have pointed out, however, that authorities have retaken the initiative in combating terrorism.
Several weeks after Caid Essebsi’s proposal, talks and meetings of po­litical groups and influential figures showed room for political manoeu­vring is remarkably narrow.
The talks exposed infighting in Nidaa Tounes and a greater appe­tite for power from Islamist party Ennahda, which may block Caid Essebsi’s efforts on meaningful change.
Caid Essebsi sought to associate the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) in the proposed govern­ment but UGTT Secretary-General Houcine Abassi rejected the offer and put forward a document detail­ing union demands.
“Without a unity government for the salvation of the nation, the country is heading towards bank­ruptcy and complete collapse,” said Zohra Driss, a Nidaa Tounes offi­cial and parliament member who is also the owner of Hotel Imperial Marhaba in Sousse where 38 holi­daymakers were killed by an Islam­ic State gunman in June 2015.
Some criticise the four political parties within the ruling coalition for providing insufficient support for Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid.
“Caid Essebsi’s unity government initiative is the last chance for the president and the parliament be­cause they are almost halfway on their 5-year mandate,” said Riadh Mouakher, a leader of Afaq Tounes, a member of the government.
Jalloul Ayed, former Finance minister, said Tunisia needs a strong government to steer it to­wards a strong growth.
“To reach a higher level of growth, the country must get to work in earnest to undertake the required reforms,” he said on June 22nd. “For that end, the country needs a clear vision and a strong political determination.”
Ex-Economy minister Ridha Saidi said: “There is consensus about the seriousness of the economic crisis” but failure to change the situation stems from “selfishness” of politi­cal parties and social groups.
Taoufik Rajhi, a top adviser to Essid, warned that the country needed to go from “soft reforms” to “hard reforms”, citing ailing state-owned enterprises, heavy state subsidies and the deficit of social security and health care funds.