Another Crucial Moment for Tunisia

Tunisia is often described as the single success story of the 2011 Arab uprisings, a fledgling democracy in a region marred by chaos and turmoil. In the first week of August, the world witnessed the democratic process in action in Tunisia when Prime Minister Habib Essid, following a no-confidence vote in parliament, stepped down and President Beji Caid Essebsi appointed Minister of Local Affairs Youssef Chahed as the new prime minister. This peaceful transfer of power was not the first to occur in Tunisia since the ouster of long-time autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In 2013, the Islamist party Ennahda stepped down from power giving way to an independent caretaker government, and last year, the Nobel Committee awarded Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet the Peace Prize for its role in bridging the polarization between Islamists and secularists following Ennahda’s move. Still, Tunisia faces many daunting challenges, and it is unclear to what extent Chahed, who is already facing opposition amid accusations of nepotism, will be able to meet those challenges.

Despite the peaceful transfer of power, both Chahed and Essebsi have come under fire from opposition parties and civil society. While Chahed denies reports that he has family ties to Essebsi, local media reports that he is the nephew of Essebsi’s son-in-law. Lawmakers from opposition parties, including the Popular Front, accuse Essebsi of replacing Essid with a pliant premier who will govern in his favor. Some reports suggest that Essebsi groomed Chahed for the position, helping him rise within Essebsi’s ruling political party Nidaa Tounes. Indeed, the 40-year old agricultural scientist and academic who entered politics in 2012 stands in marked contrast to 67-year old Habib Essid, a longtime bureaucrat who held a number of high level ministerial posts, including Minister of Interior. Chahed’s appointment has also rankled those accusing Essebsi of attempting a hereditary transfer of power to his son Hafedh. Earlier this year, Essebsi appointed his son as head of Nidaa Tounes, prompting a split within the party. To many Tunisians, including some youth leaders, Chahed’s appointment further demonstrates the nepotism within the government. 

Chahed, meanwhile, presents himself as the bold leader Tunisia needs to push through difficult reforms and tackle internal and external threats. Essid was criticized for his handling of the economy and security, and Chahed seems to be positioning himself as a figure more capable of achieving progress on these fronts. Upon accepting his appointment, he told Tunisians that his priorities are winning Tunisia’s war on terrorism, expanding growth to create jobs, balancing public finances, and waging a war on corruption. He also told reporters that his appointment “is a message of confidence for young people…in this delicate time, we need a lot of audacious decisions.”

While Chahed and his supporters assert that the country is in need of a bolder style of governance that engages Tunisian youth, it remains unclear whether he will be able to implement these “audacious decisions” and exactly how he plans to do so. Essid was only in office for 18 months, giving him little time to marshal a turnaround in the Tunisian economy following major terror attacks in 2015. Still, in recent months it appeared that some progress was being made. On the security front, in April, Tunisia’s Tourism Ministry cited positive signs that airline bookings were beginning to recover. The country expects to attract the same number of foreign tourists this year as last year, albeit a number that is the lowest Tunisian has seen in decades, as efforts have been made to increase security at hotels and airports, and as the industry refocuses to new markets. The World Bank said earlier this year that it expects Tunisia’s gross domestic product growth to recover modestly to 1.8 percent this year from 0.8 percent in 2015. The Bank expects GDP growth to reach 2.5 percent by 2017, which is higher than the level in 2014.

Meanwhile, the international community continues to express strong support for and interest in Tunisia’s recovery. On August 5, Tunisia issued a $500 million bond guaranteed by the United States. The US loan guarantee is the third since 2012 and aims to support economic reforms in the country. In June, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a four-year, $2.9 billion loan to support Tunisian authorities’ economic agenda and promote inclusive growth and job creation. The IMF program is an ambitious one that seeks to help Tunisia reduce its overall fiscal deficit, improve the management of public spending, and enact major structural reforms.

However, even with international assistance, economic reforms in Tunisia will take time to show results. It remains to be seen how Chahed plans to accelerate economic growth any more so than Essid’s government and how he plans to tackle a host of other challenges facing the country. While Chahed says tackling corruption will be a major focus within his new government, the country is still simmering with opposition to the proposed economic reconciliation bill, which is supported by Essebsi and would give amnesty to many of Tunisia’s corrupt businessmen and agents of the Ben Ali regime. Meanwhile, some have raised the alarm that General Tunisian Labor Union (UGTT), a member of the Nobel Prize-winning quartet, is blocking much-needed reforms to the country’s oversized public sector. And Chahed is likely to continue to face opposition from those who see him as another case of Essebsi stacking the government with loyalist and familial figures. Accelerating Tunisia’s anemic growth and reducing the high level of unemployment, particularly among the youth, will be no easy feat amid these challenges.

Ultimately, Tunisia’s new prime minister will be judged based on the new government he assembles within 30 days and the plan it presents to parliament. He is faced with the difficult task of coming up with a government that can satisfy Tunisia’s disillusioned youth, the country’s international lenders and supporters, and the growing opposition to the Nidaa Tounes- Ennahda alliance that dominates the current political landscape. At this crucial moment in Tunisia’s nascent democracy, Chahed must follow through on his promises to be independent by favoring no particularly party and be more representative by including more youth and women in the new government. By doing so, he may be able to unite the entire population behind a vision for governance that has clear benchmarks to deliver positive change. While his failure may not be fatal to the democratization process, his success would constitute a very important step forward for the country.

Karim Mezran is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Elissa Miller is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

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Image: Youssef Chahed (Facebook page)