Tunisia braces for new era of politics

Tunisia braces for new era of politics
Habib Essid was only nominated as prime minister this week, but already looks set to change the way governance is done.
4 min read
Habib Essid is changing the structure of Tunisia's government [AFP]
Habib Essid is already shaking up Tunisia's political scene.

The Nidaa Tounes party's 65-year-old nominee for prime minister has divided opinion among the country's political parties, with several calling for a technocrat government to be installed.

Essid, a former interior minister, is seen by some as being relatively independent from the party hierarchy of Nidaa Tounes, which has been criticised for including figures from the regime of ousted dictator Ben Ali.

Others see him as an extension of Tunisia's pre-revolution structure - and his nomination as a negative message to citizens.

"Ennahdha does not object to Essid, and wishes him and the government team that will work with him every success," said the moderate Islamist party's Noureddine Bhiri.

"Anyone who has observed the political landscape after the revolution will note that Essid served as part of Ennahdha's government, that is, the government formerly led by Hamadi Jebali, specifically after the election of October 23, 2011."
     Ennahdha does not object to Essid, and wishes him every success.
- Noureddine Bhiri, Ennahdha

Tunisia's young democracy is strong, but no party can govern on its own, said Bhiri, calling for solidarity among citizens and what he called a "national unity government".

Praise and condemnation

The responsibility for choosing the head of government is in the hands of Nidaa Tounes, which won parliamentary elections in November.

But that has not stopped other parties from praising or condemning its choice. 

"Nidaa chose an independent from outside the party, someone who has experience and who served in previous ministerial posts," said Maher Ben Dhia, a senior figure in the Free Patriotic Union (UPL).

The UPL, according to Ben Dhia, will deal with the prime minister-designate on the basis of his programme, not his personality. The UPL shares much of Nidaa Tounes' agenda.

Ben Dhia decribed Essid as a technocrat with "clean hands and no suspicions of corruption surrounding his name".

But Mourad Amdouni, a Popular Front leader, disagreed.

"The Front has, from the outset, called for choosing figures and ministers who were not part of the troika government or the government of Ben Ali, so that [we don’t get] symbols of failure," Amdouni told al-Araby
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The Popular Front's Hamma Hammami revealed on monday that the party was more inclined to be in the opposition than to participate in coalition government.

The Front had not been consulted about Essid's candidacy or the potential cabinet lineup, he said.

Decisive days

Riad Mouakher, of the Afek Tounes party, said the coming days, following the cabinet's formation, would be decisive. Essid had no decision-making power in Ben Ali's government, he noted, and his experience should not count against him.

"If we exclude experienced people and people who held previous ministerial posts from decision-making posts, and limit ourselves to figures who came after the revolution, we would find ourselves dealing with people without political experience," he told al-Araby.

Mohamed Abbou, head of the Democratic Movement Party, told al-Araby it would have been better if a different figure had been selected, to "send a message of reassurance" to the people.

"Essid was not a minister under Ben Ali, but he held important posts and responsibilities," he said. His appointment could cause concerns for some, said Abbou.

Abbou said that the next stage in Tunisia's transition required an expert on the economy, not security, to take the helm, "because security requires laws and not a prime minister who is an expert [on security]".
     Essid was not a minister under Ben Ali, but he held important posts and responsibilities.
- Mohamed Abbou, Democratic Movement Party

Cabinet maker

Ministerial posts, sources told al-Araby al-Jadeed, are likely to be distributed among non-partisan experts in their departmental fields, with some allocated to political parties, and a few ministers retained from the government of acting Prime Minister Mahdi Jomaa.

Among the ministers expected to remain in the new government are the minister of transport, the minister of industry, and the minister of defence.

A Nidaa Tounes source also told al-Araby that the number of members in the next cabinet would not exceed 35, including 22 ministers, 11 minister-delegates, and two secretaries of state.

The new cabinet structure will be markedly different, the source said, most notably with the introduction of an independent ministry for youth affairs, and the expansion of the scope of work of the Ministry of Social Affairs - merging with the labour and social dialogue ministries - to make one of the largest official departments in the country.

The Foreign Ministry will also take over the ministries of international cooperation and immigration affairs, while the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources will assume responsibility for food industries. The Ministry of Education is also due to take over the Vocational Training and Professional Development department.

The Ministry of Interior will be entrusted with two main roles: a domestic security function supervised by the interior minister, and regional and local community development - which, officials hope, will eventually be spun out to form its own independent ministry, in line with the new constitution's focus on decentralisation.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.