Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi took steps to defuse the crisis overtaking the country resulting from a dispute between the governing Nidaa Tounes Coalition and the Islamist Ennahda Movement this week by saying he was ready to swear in new cabinet ministers appointed by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed if parliament approved certain legal amendments.
“I have no problem with the prime minister, but I am disappointed at the methods used to appoint the new ministers, which were impolite and unusual,” Essebsi told a news conference at the Carthage Presidential Palace in Tunis.
Chahed announced early last week a cabinet reshuffle including 13 ministers and five ministers of state after months of bickering between the Islamist Ennahda Movement and the Tunisian General Workers Union.
The reshuffle includes former diplomat Kamal Murjan, the last foreign minister under former president Zine Al-Abidine bin Ali before he was overthrown in the country’s 2011 Revolution, who is now minister of public services.
The new cabinet also includes a Jewish minister for the first time since Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956 in the shape of businessman Roni Trabelsi as minister of tourism.
Trabelsi is the son of Peres Trabelsi, head of the Jewish synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba where religious celebrations attract thousands of Jews from around the world even though the Jewish community in Tunisia counts only some 2,500 people.
The cabinet reshuffle also included Sayeda Al-Wanisi, a leading member of Ennahda and the youngest minister at the age of 31.
Earlier, Essebsi had rejected the new ministers before eventually agreeing that they should be sworn in, according to presidential spokeswoman Saeeda Qarash.
She said the cabinet reshuffle had been hasty and had aimed to impose a fait accompli without consulting the president.
Chahed had only informed Essebsi of his intention to reshuffle the government shortly before officially announcing it.
The current crisis in Tunisia, complicated by the country’s serious economic troubles, began when the powerful Tunisian General Workers Union demanded that Chahed step aside in protest at what it said was his “failure to manage the economy.”
The union is a member of the Tunisian Quartet that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, along with the Tunisian Bar Association and the Tunisian Association for Human Rights, all of which have worked since 2013 to consolidate the gains of the 2011 Revolution.
Tunisia’s General Workers Union is based on socialist ideas, and its rival, Ennahda Movement, is rooted in Islamist ideology.
The union represents millions of Tunisian workers who suffer from difficult living conditions, especially as a result of the current round of economic reforms and austerity measures.
Chahed is also facing a conflict within his own party Nidaa Tounes against Hafez Essebsi, the president’s son, with the president wanting to see both men leave politics. “Tunisia would not lose anything if they both exited [the scene],” he said.
Ennahda has stood by Chahed in the current crisis, and there have even been rumours that he could be their candidate in the 2019 presidential race.
Ennahda previously supported former president Moncef Marzouki in the first presidential elections after Bin Ali was deposed in 2011, even though he was not an Islamist.
Marzouki’s defeat in the 2014 elections despite Ennahda’s support and the loss of many of the movement’s seats in parliament undermined its ability to mobilise in a country that has clear secularist trends.
Ali Kamaluddin, a political commentator, said that social legislation proposed by Essebsi may have weakened Ennahda further, resulting in his suspending the understandings which had created the coalition government led by Chahed.
Essebsi had proposed controversial draft legislation, most notably regarding the equality of inheritance between men and women. This had been opposed by Ennahda, but the protests led by the movement were unsuccessful in defeating the new law.
Tunisia’s parliament also approved legislation on anti-discrimination, the first of its kind in the Arab world, with this being opposed by Islamist movements since it dictates equality of treatment of Muslims and members of religious minorities.
In a report to the president in June, Tunisia’s Committee on Individual Rights also proposed decriminalising homosexuality and ending capital punishment, ideas opposed by Ennahda.
The latter has been criticised during protests against the return to the country of Tunisian terrorists who had joined Islamic State (IS) and other groups, Kamaluddin said.
“With the victory of the trend rejecting the return of members of IS and other terrorist groups, the radical wing of Ennahda and its Salafi supporters are in crisis,” he added. “This weakness could benefit the more moderate wing of the movement and make it easier for the civic current in the country.”
Former Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba, in power from 1956 to 1987, passed laws prohibiting polygamy and giving women extensive rights in education, work and marriage.
The economic reconciliation laws with businessmen associated with the former Bin Ali regime and the administrative reconciliation laws that have included senior officials in the deposed regime have also resulted in Ennahda losing many of its supporters, according to Kamaluddin.
“Nidaa Tounes includes several members of the former regime, and it would be expected for them to support amnesty laws. However, Ennahda had often called for their prosecution, so its decision to vote for the laws was unexpected,” Kamaluddin said, adding that both Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda were expected to take a hit in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Temporary calm in Tunisia