Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Mehdi Gomaa’s mission

Hopes are running high in the new Tunisian prime minister’s ability to solve the country’s problems, writes Lassaad Ben Ahmed in Tunis

Al-Ahram Weekly

All of a sudden, Tunisia seems abuzz with activity on all fronts. In one week or so, Ali Larayedh has resigned as prime minister to be replaced by Mehdi Gomaa who is expected to form a new government within the next two weeks.

The ratification of the country’s new constitution is also proceeding well, albeit more slowly than expected, and the independent elections committee is being elected.

The leader of Ansar Al-Sharia, the hardline militant group accused of attacking the US diplomatic mission in the country, a man called Abu Ayad, has been arrested. This news, as well as the fact that several offshore companies have resumed their work, has given a boost to Tunisia’s flagging stock market.

Hopes are running high. But Gomaa has tried to temper the ebullience that has surrounded his nomination. “Do not expect miracles,” he said. “But I will do everything that it is within my power to do.”

Gomaa is keenly aware of the problems ahead. His first task will be to revise a controversial tax law that has alienated businessmen as well as government employees.

The law, which raises taxes on automobiles and introduces new duties on exports and tax collection at source for offshore businesses, has caused riots in various parts of the country.

During the recent protests, some Tunisians voiced an unexpected longing for the days of the ousted former president, Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali, forced out of office during the country’s 2011 Revolution. One protester commented that “at least Bin Ali didn’t increase taxes in this abrupt and infuriating way.”

Although the government has gone back on some of the new taxes, the country’s finances are still in the doldrums. To balance its budget, Tunisia will have to clamp down on tax evasion and streamline subsidies. To do so while achieving the long-promised social justice that was at the core of the 2011 revolution will not be easy, but this is what people are expecting Gomaa to do.

The Islamist Al-Nahda Movement to which the outgoing prime minister belonged has said that Larayedh’s resignation is a step towards reconciliation. Many Tunisians now expect Gomaa to kick start development, without alienating any of the country’s major parties.

In order to do so, he may need to borrow a page from the book of former finance minister Jalloul Ayed, who could be brought back to serve in the forthcoming cabinet.

Ayed’s name was on a list of potential cabinet members leaked recently to the press. On the same list was that of René Trebelsi, who may become Tunisia’s future tourism minister. If so, he will be the first Jew to serve in a cabinet position in any Arab country in recent memory.

Appointments of this kind are a sign that Gomaa is serious in his endeavour to reassure tourists and investors that Tunisia is a place in which everyone will be treated fairly regardless of religion.

The new government, which has the full backing of the country’s National Assembly, may not last in power for long, however. Its mission will end right after the next elections, though no date has yet been set for these.

Mohamed Sarsar, who last week became president of the independent elections committee, said that it would be hard to set the date for the next elections until the constitution had been written.

Voting on the latter has been slower than expected. So far, legislators have only tackled 103 out of the 146 chapters of the new constitution, with Chapter 103 being particularly difficult to handle as it involves judicial appointments and the independence of the judiciary.

The voting on this chapter, just as in other controversial chapters, has therefore been postponed. So has the vote on the qualifications of the president and the quota of women in elected councils.

Another controversial chapter, number 38, addresses mandatory education and the assertion of an Arab and Islamic identity in educational institutions. The opposition has been particularly concerned about the contents of this chapter, and some have argued that it has compromised the modern nature of the state.

Yadh bin Achour, a constitutional expert, said that the text of the constitution as a whole was acceptable. But as the bickering has continued over some of its components, the process of ratifying it will take some time.

The controversies over the constitution raise the possibility of voting on the constitution not only chapter by chapter, which only requires a 50 per cent approval, but also as a whole, which calls for that of two-thirds.

To do all of this and put the constitution up for popular referendum may take up to six months.

This is not necessarily bad news for Gomaa, since he needs more time to formulate policy and restore the confidence of Tunisians in their government.

Already, there is an air of optimism about Gomaa, with some calling him the “Tunisian Gerhard Schroeder” and others referring to him as future presidential material.

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