Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Reshuffle in Tunisia

Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid has reshuffled his government against a background of growing internal dissension and popular contestation, writes Kamel Abdallah in Tunis

Al-Ahram Weekly

The resignation of 32 MPs from the Nidaa Tounes Party in November, and more recently of others from the party’s parliamentary bloc, has thrown into relief the divisions wracking Tunisia’s ruling party and could lead to its main rival, the Islamist Ennahda Party, becoming the leading force in the country’s legislature.

In the hope of bolstering the government’s authority, Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid carried out a sweeping cabinet reshuffle this week, but it is clear that the union organisations headed by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) are not pleased with it.

Nidaa Tounes, founded by the current president, Beji Caid Essebsi, is more of a political coalition than a cohesive political party. It was formed primarily to create a powerful front that would keep the Islamists from power, which happened in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali regime in the Tunisian revolution in 2011.

The party has been rocked by internal disputes that even erupted into a brawl during its last meeting in the city of Hammamet. Nidaa Tounes has split into two wings, one led by the president’s son, Hafez Caid Essebsi, who has strong political ambitions and hopes to succeed his father as head of the party, a post from which he had to resign on becoming president.

The other wing is led by the party’s general secretary, Mohsen Marzouk, who resigned from Nidaa Tounes to form a new “neo-Bourguibist” party inspired by Tunisia’s post-independence president Habib Bourguiba.

 It was these internal disputes in Nidaa Tounes that compelled Essid to carry out a major cabinet reshuffle, replacing 12 ministers, including the ministers of the interior and foreign affairs. Foreign Minister Tayyib Al-Bakoush was replaced by Khamis Al-Joheinawi, and Interior Minister Nejm al-Gharsali was replaced by Al-Hadi Mejdoub.

At a rally in Tunis on Sunday, attended by many of the MPs who had resigned from Nidaa Tounes, the former general-secretary of the party made his resignation official. The step marked the beginning of the “new Nidaa”, Marzouk said, referring to the party he plans to inaugurate in March, as announced in a press conference on 6 January.

Hasouna Al-Nacefi, a spokesman for the breakaway MPs, said that their resignation was in protest at the failure of the party’s executive board to convene. He described the board as “the sole legitimate structure in the party” and added that the resignations were an act of protest against attempts to choose a non-democratic course.

With the resignations from Nidaa Tounes, the Ennahda Party has become the largest cohesive parliamentary force in the country with 67 seats, while those of Nidaa Tounes have shrunk from 86 to 54.

According to Mustafa bin Ahmed, one of the ex-Nidaa Tounes MPs, their next step could be to form an independent bloc in parliament. However, Bin Ahmed’s statements might conflict with Marzouk’s plans to create a new party, which he hopes will benefit from the MPs who resigned and which would enable Nidaa Tounes to retain its place as an effective parliamentary force.

Ennahda leader Rached Al-Ghannouchi took part in the first congress of Nidaa Tounes in Sousse on Saturday along with other political party chiefs and representatives of various national organisations. This has been interpreted both as a sign of support for the ruling party’s current leadership of the political process and a reflection of Ennahda’s desire to help preserve stability.

In his speech to the congress, Al-Ghannouchi described Tunisia as “a bird that flies with two wings: Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes.” The latter had created equilibrium in the country’s political life, he said, adding that consensus was what Tunisia needed and that he supported Essebsi’s policies.

“I am happy to see a strong and united Nidaa Tounes, and I am sure that president Essebsi is happy to see a strong and united Ennahda,” Al-Ghannouchi said.

Mohamed Ennaceur, the president of Nidaa Tounes and speaker of the parliament, said that the party is “strong and enduring.” It has succeeded in containing its internal disputes and the congress at Sousse will help revitalise it, he added.

He said that the enthusiasm that filled the convention hall in Sousse confirmed that Nidaa Tounes is strong and that it has the voters behind it. It will forge ahead to realise its political project, in accordance with the social and moral contract that exists between the party and its voters, he said.

One of the purposes of the Sousse convention was to discuss expanding the party leadership by adding new members to the executive board, part of a plan to contain internal disputes and the fallout from the resignation of the party’s MPs.

According to news reports, in the event that new members are brought on board, the executive board will include six members of the party’s general secretariat as well as 17 members from its committees, bringing the number of executive board members to 23 from 21.

Meanwhile, the UGTT criticised Essid’s cabinet reshuffle, saying that the prime minister “failed to observe the principles of consultation and concord, resorted to the principle of quotas, and sidelined the principle of competence.”

On its Facebook page, the UGTT, the largest Tunisian union organisation, added that the reshuffle “does not meet the demands of the current situation and deepens the crisis in the country.” This has been interpreted as an implicit call to MPs to withhold a vote of confidence in the new cabinet.

The UGTT position may stem from its opposition to Essid’s decision to dismiss the minister of social affairs, whom it had supported. Other unions also support its position, as they suspect that the government is biased in favour of big business in view of its rejection of the UGTT’s proposal for a wage hike in the private sector along the lines of what has occurred in the public sector.

The Tunisian unions generally see the ruling Nidaa Tounes alliance with four other parties with liberal economic outlooks as being unfavourable to the working classes and unable to respond to their demands under the current conditions of inflation and rising prices.

The position of the UGTT and other labour organisations suggests that tensions between them and the Essid government could increase, especially after the government announced a freeze on appointments to public sector jobs. It is also clear that these organisations are not pleased by the way the government has been managing social dialogue in the country.

In a tangible sign of the rising tensions between the powerful union organisations in Tunisia and the government, UGTT Transport Secretary Moncef bin Ramadan announced on Sunday that transport workers will go on a three-day strike throughout the country from 21 to 23 January, coinciding with the private-sector labour strike due to go into effect in Greater Tunis on 21 January.

Moncef bin Ramadan was cited as saying that he hoped a solution that is “satisfactory to all” could be reached on a wage hike before the strike begins.

The strikes come at a delicate moment for the Essid government, as they will coincide with the fifth anniversary of Tunisia’s 2011 Jasmine Revolution.

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