Can Tunisia’s New Government Deliver?

On August 20, Tunisia’s new Prime Minister-designate Youssef Chahed announced his new cabinet. Almost three weeks earlier, Prime Minister Habib Essid had been ousted in a vote of no-confidence. President Beji Caid Essebsi and his supporters, displeased with Essid’s performance and worried by the country’s economic downturn and political tensions, decided to change course and push for a new “unity government.” Chahed, a young technocrat, was presented as a “courageous alternative” to Essid who would be able to push through tough economic reforms and better handle Tunisia’s precarious security situation. Chahed has presented his cabinet as an inclusive, fresh-faced, and more effective group of ministers than that of his predecessor. The 26-member cabinet includes nine women – including the country’s first female finance minister – and a handful of ministers under the age of 35. However, Chahed’s proposed cabinet has not been met without criticism, and it remains unclear to what extent this new government will be able to better tackle the challenges that plagued Essid’s government.

Chahed’s proposed government is inclusive in many ways. In addition to figures from Essebsi’s ruling Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, which currently holds the most seats in parliament, it includes figures from minority parties such as Al-Massar and Afek Tounes. Chahed has also brought back the junior positions of Secretary of State, which are equivalent to the role of undersecretary in each ministry and which Essid did away with during a cabinet reshuffle last January. The appointment of these junior ministers brings some younger faces to Chahed’s government who may be less associated with the country’s political elite establishment.

However, the new line-up also retains nine ministers from Essid’s cabinet (two of whom have been moved to different ministries). Most notable among those retaining their positions are the ministers of defense, interior, and foreign affairs. Chahed reportedly said his choice to retain these ministers was due to recent “successes” in the security sphere. Indeed, despite an attack in March by militants on Tunisia’s military, the country’s security situation has steadied since the two major terror attacks on tourists in 2015 and it seems progress is being made in preventing future attacks. One of Chahed’s stated priorities for his new government is fighting terrorism. It remains unclear how he plans to do so in a different manner than Essid’s government given that the three key ministers responsible for state security have not changed. Moreover, his choice to retain these ministers suggests a recognition of Essid’s positive performance on the security front.

On the economic front, Chahed’s appointment of Lamia Zribi as the country’s first female finance minister is reflective of his efforts to form a more inclusive government, although she is not a new figure in Tunisia’s post 2011 political environment. Zribi served as Secretary of State to the Minister of Development, Investment, and International Cooperation in Essid’s first cabinet appointed in February 2015. She held less senior positions in the same ministry prior to the 2011 revolution. Her former roles as chief executive of Tunisia’s Bank of Small- and Medium-Sized Enterprises and foreign trade service company TradeNet, which both fall under the jurisdiction of the finance ministry, may help to inform the new government as it strives to boost stagnant growth and employment. Still, achievements by former Finance Minister Slim Chaker should not be discounted. In recent months, Tunisia moved to adopt sweeping banking reforms and passed legislation protecting the central bank from political interference. Tunisia also reached a four-year, $2.9 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund and signed a third $500 million loan guarantee with the United States. Zribi will be faced with pushing through difficult structural reforms that are widely viewed as necessary but will not provide immediate economic relief to the population. Over time, the IMF has said that these reforms will boost Tunisia’s growth to 5 percent. While this is certainly better than the current dismal growth forecast this year of 1.8 percent, it is clear that there is no “magic bullet” for solving Tunisia’s economic crisis. Growth will take time, and in terms of popular support, Chahed’s government may be short on that commodity.

Immediately following his announcement, Chahed’s proposed cabinet was met with opposition from a number of political parties. Within Chahed’s own party, Nidaa Tounes, 19 members of parliament reportedly threatened to resign from the party over “incompetent” ministry appointments. Members of Nidaa Tounes were not the only ones to make that claim. The al-Irada party charged that Chahed’s government lacks cohesion and will be unable to solve the country’s social and economic problems. Others decried what they saw as corruption and favortisim in Chahed’s proposed cabinet. Spokesman for the Popular Front Hamma Hammami said his party would vote against the new government, which he called a “government of political quotas representing Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda. He said the cabinet was “decorated by some political and union figures,” a reference to the two ministers with ties to Tunisia’s powerful trade union, the UGTT. The union had been accused of blocking needed reforms to Tunisia’s public sector, and it is unclear whether the new UGTT linked ministers – Minister of Public Service and Governance Abid Briki and Minister of Social Affairs Mohamed Trabelsi – will exacerbate or help alleviate the problem.

In addition, Afek Tounes, which has two ministerial posts and two secretary of state posts within the new government, expressed dissatisfaction with Chahed’s cabinet. Afek Tounes leader Rim Mahjoub has said that her party will not be part of the government if it is maintained in its current form. Party member Riadh Mouakher, who was appointed as Minister of Local Affairs and Environment in the new cabinet, said he will give up his appointment if Afek Tounes decides not to participate in the government. And Afek Tounes founder Yassine Brahim, who has lost his post as Minister of Development, Investment and International Cooperation, expressed concern of corruption regarding Briki and Minister for Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society and Human Rights Mehdi Ben Gharbia. The al-Irada party also said that the appointments do not characterize national unity and underlined that “serious suspicions of corruption hang over some designated ministers.”

Meanwhile, Ennahda has expressed some reservations about the line-up of the new government, but head of the party’s Shura Council Abdelkarim Harouni said it would not vote against the new government. Still, his comment that Ennahda “will not accept any suspicion of corruption (among the government members), nor any personality who would seek to exclude Ennahda or any other party,” is reflective of both concerns that other parties have raised about corruption in the new cabinet and the party’s dissatisfaction with only receiving three ministerial posts. The party had only one figure in Essid’s previous cabinet, and indicated it expected more representation in the new unity government’s cabinet.

Tunisia’s parliament is expected to vote on Chahed’s new cabinet on August 26. He needs 109 votes in the 217-member body to win the vote of confidence. Ahead of Essid’s no-confidence vote, it was reported that Tunisia’s ruling coalition parties held more than 150 seats. This would put Chahed far over the threshold needed to move forward with his new government. However, this is far from an ideal place to start for the country’s new “unity government.” His cabinet is notably lacking full support from members of parliament of his own party. Chahed’s new government will need to prove that it can deliver. The rhetoric that has until now been espoused by Essebsi and Chahed regarding the need for new, “bold” leadership will mean little if this new government cannot unify the country behind a real strategy to address the difficult steps that lie ahead.   

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: Prime Minister-designate Youssef Chahed presents the cabinet line-up to President Beji Caid Essebsi on August 20, 2016 (Tunisian presidency photo)