Why Did Tunisia’s Parliament Oust Prime Minister Habib Essid?

In what was an anticipated result, Tunisia’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to oust Prime Minister Habib Essid on July 30. The vote came in the midst of intra-party divisions and questions over Essid’s capacity to lead the country successfully just 17 months after his nomination to the post. Although expected, the result and the uncertainty over a potential replacement for Essid, leave a substantial power vacuum in an already fragile state plagued by growing security concerns and a deteriorating economy.

Why a Vote of Confidence?

Essid himself called for the vote of confidence in parliament on July 13, saying that he was being pressured to resign “in order to avoid humiliation.” In what he described as a bid to “expose things to the people and to members of parliament,” Essid said he would not be pressured into resigning without a vote, while knowing full well the results would not be in his favor. In a July 20 interview with Attassia TV, he refuted claims he is to blame for the current crises facing Tunisia. Addressing parliament immediately prior to the vote, he defended his record, but after the results were announced he said he would stand responsible for his failure as head of government.

Much of the pressure that Essid was feeling was the result of the Carthage Accord, which precipitated the turn of events and fueled rumors of a possible resignation of the head of government. The Carthage Accord was presented by President Beji Caid Essebsi in early June, and signed on July 13th by the country’s major political parties and trade unions—UGTT, UTICA and UTAP. The Accord seeks to establish a National Unity Government, and is also designed to help alleviate the political tensions between parties by granting them equal representation. The agreement brings in structural changes to national security, economic development, and the fight against corruption for a better functioning of the country and its institutions.

The Carthage Accord, received “broad support, at a time when Tunisia is experiencing a political, economic and social crisis, and in light of the challenges in the fight against terrorism,” according to an official statement by the government. Despite being the head of that government, Essid said he was not consulted at any time regarding the planning of the Accord, nor were there plans to keep him on as a leader in the National Unity Government. He was not present during the signing of the Accord, and is said to have been increasingly marginalized, even by his cabinet and members of Nidaa Tounes, the party that nominated him for the post. In his interview with Attassia TV, Essid expressed dismay over the timing and premise of the Carthage Accord. Coupled with the existing tensions between Essid and the other branches of government, the Carthage Accord left him no maneuvering power to complete his mandate.

As such, the Accord seemed to have been the final step in the campaign launched by party members, officials, and a number of media outlets to sideline Essid, an effort that began during the first few months of his mandate and progressively intensified until reaching its current peak. It is unclear if the reason for these attacks was strictly related to what has been described as his “poor performance” as a head of government. The ruling party itself is embattled, facing deep internal divisions and leadership controversies culminating in the political crisis centered around Essid.

A Predictable Result

In the days preceding the vote of confidence, few groups demonstrated their support for the status quo. Nidaa Tounes, Afek Tounes and the newly formed Machrou3 Tounes Movement announced that they would not vote in favor of Essid. Overall, sources estimated that the signatories of the Carthage Accord, which represent about 85 percent of the deputies represented in the ARP, indicated they would vote against Essid.

Nidaa Tounes announced prior to the vote that its 67 deputies would not be on Essid’s side in the vote of confidence. A majority party voting against the head of government it nominated less than two years ago reflects the extent of the weak decision-making within Nidaa, as much as it is representative of the extremely fragile equilibrium of Tunisian domestic politics. Addressing parliament prior to the vote, Nidaa MP Abdelaziz Kotti, referred to “a big economic crisis… and a government incapable of finding solutions and giving Tunisians hope.” While Ennahdha’s position prior to the vote remained ambiguous, party representatives asserted they would not be opposed to replacing Essid, and immediately prior to the vote, former Ennahda prime minister Ali Lareyedh, lamented the weakness of Essid’s government.

The final results of the vote saw 118 MPS voting against Essid, well over the 109 votes needed to sack the outgoing head of government. Only three votes were cast in his favor, while 27 members of parliament abstained from the vote. Following the vote, nonetheless, some deputies had kind words to say about Essid, including Ennahda members. Ennahda deputy and previous Minister of Justice Noureddine Bhiri saluted Habib Essid’s “good use of democratic tools.” Nidaa Tounes deputy Hatem Ferjani, meanwhile stated that Essid’s government was “the first in Tunisia’s history to fulfill its duties to the Parliament.”

Now, President Beji Caid Essebsi must initiate consultations to designate a new head of government within 10 days. The new prime minister will be tasked with forming a new cabinet within 30 days of his nomination. But in the absence of a clearly designated replacement to lead the new National Unity Government, the future remains uncertain. The vote has also prompted fears that this could further enable the rise of the Hafedh Caid Essebsi—the President’s son himself critical of Essid—who was named head of the party earlier this year, despite accusations of cronyism and nepotism from within the party.

As the role and responsibilities of the head of government are likely to change along with the leadership in the new government structure, there appears to be much speculation, but no clear path forward for the Unity Government. Many thorny questions remain unanswered, particularly concerning the breadth and scope of the new head of government’s mandates and what adjustments will be made to his and other portfolios. It remains equally uncertain whether these changes will be enough to save the country from more political polarization. These questions take on even more urgency in light of Tunisia’s increasing economic woes, threats along its borders, and a systemic lack of well-established democratic and civil society institutions.

Fatim-Zohra El Malki is a research associate at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She holds a Master’s degree in Arab Studies from Georgetown University and a degree in International Law and economics. Her interests include political transformations in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Image: A general view during a plenary session at the Assembly of People's Representatives in Tunis, Tunisia July 30, 2016. (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters)