Reshuf­fle ex­poses Tu­nisia power strug­gle

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TUNIS — In reshuf­fling his cab­i­net this week, Tu­nisian Prime Min­is­ter Youssef Cha­hed has sparked new ten­sions with the man who ap­pointed him and fed spec­u­la­tion that he in­tends to run in next year’s pres­i­den­tial poll.

Just over two years ago, the 43year-old Cha­hed be­came Tu­nisia’s sev­enth prime min­is­ter since the coun­try’s 2011 rev­o­lu­tion when he was ap­pointed by Pres­i­dent Beji Caid Essebsi.

He has since be­come the long­est serv­ing of the coun­try’s post Arab Spring pre­miers – a tes­ta­ment to the fragility of Tu­nisian pol­i­tics as it adapts to democ­racy af­ter the one-man rule of for­mer pres­i­dent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

But Cha­hed’s abil­ity to gov­ern was dam­aged in Septem­ber when he fell out with Essebsi’s son Hafedh, the leader of the Ni­daa Tounes party, who has been bat­tling to oust the pre­mier for months.

The reshuf­fle is de­signed to bring the coun­try “out of po­lit­i­cal cri­sis”, Cha­hed said on Mon­day, af­ter ap­point­ing 13 new min­is­ters.

But some Ni­daa Tounes law­mak­ers have slammed the move as tan­ta­mount to a coup.

The pres­i­dent on Thurs­day de­nied there was a rift be­tween him and the prime min­is­ter.

Cha­hed “is not my ad­ver­sary, and I am not his ad­ver­sary”, Essebsi told re­porters at the pres­i­den­tial palace.

But “things are not go­ing in a good di­rec­tion” and the reshuf­fle “dis­pleased me”, he said.

The prime min­is­ter “must in­form the head of state of ev­ery­thing he de­cides”, he added.

The power strug­gle pre­vi­ously came to a head in July, when the pres­i­dent him­self called on Cha­hed to re­sign.

But Cha­hed has re­frained from chang­ing the for­eign or de­fence min­is­ters – posts that con­sti­tu­tion­ally re­quire him to con­sult the pres­i­dent.

And the pres­i­dent has lit­tle lever­age, be­yond drag­ging out ne­go­ti­a­tions or per­suad­ing his party’s min­is­ters to re­sign, in­clud­ing the de­fence min­is­ter.

Cha­hed can count on the back­ing of about 40 for­mer and cur­rent Ni­daa Tounes law­mak­ers – dis­senters who fol­lowed him af­ter the party split – when he sub­mits his cab­i­net line-up to par­lia­ment in the com­ing days.

And he can also ex­pect the sup­port of the Is­lamist-in­spired En­nahda party, which has be­come the largest bloc in par­lia­ment with 68 out of 217 seats, due to the im­plo­sion of Ni­daa Tounes over the past two years. But “the rea­son for Cha­hed has been in the hot seat for months due to his tus­sle with Hafedh Caid Essebsi, who is re­ported to have pres­i­den­tial am­bi­tions and ac­cused him in May of hav­ing “de­stroyed the party”.

The bat­tle for power has re­shaped po­lit­i­cal al­liances. It has pre­cip­i­tated the end of the con­sen­sus forged be­tween Essebsi and Rached Ghan­nouchi, head of En­nahda which sought to limit the po­lar­i­sa­tion of po­lit­i­cal life af­ter elec­tions in 2014.

But un­like the con­sti­tu­tion which was in place be­fore Ben Ali’s fall in 2011 and placed power at the heart of the pres­i­dency, the 2014 vote gave more power to par­lia­ment.

Cha­hed “has freed him­self from the pa­ter­nal tute­lage” of Essebsi, said po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Youssef Oues­lati.

While many Tu­nisians ex­pect Cha­hed to run for the pres­i­dency, his en­tourage says he is more in­ter­ested in re­main­ing in par­lia­ment.

Mean­while, 91-year-old Essebsi has left his own in­ten­tions hang­ing in the air.

The po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity risks wors­en­ing as Tu­nisia grap­ples with high un­em­ploy­ment and in­fla­tion, which are feed­ing into so­cial ten­sions.

“How­ever the cri­sis plays out, the vic­tim in all of this is democ­racy, which Tu­nisians in­creas­ingly as­so­ciate with in­sta­bil­ity and in­de­ci­sion,” said Sha­ran Gre­wal of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion think-tank.

What is clear is that Tu­nisia needs to form the con­sti­tu­tional court, which could ad­ju­di­cate “any dis­putes aris­ing with re­spect to the pow­ers of the pres­i­dent and the prime min­is­ter”, he added.

Tu­nisia is the only coun­try af­fected by the Arab Spring that has con­tin­ued to democra­tise and open up po­lit­i­cal space.

“The po­lit­i­cal cri­sis is the proof that democ­racy has been con­cretely put into prac­tice de­spite the neg­a­tive as­pects and ob­sta­cles,” said Jourchi.

News­pa­per colum­nist Ziyed Krichen ex­pects the strug­gle to rum­ble on un­til the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion sched­uled for De­cem­ber next year.

“We live with the con­se­quences of this open con­flict... un­til the elec­torate” votes, he said. — AFP

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