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Tunisia nears political crisis as opposition to cabinet reshuffle mounts

Karem Yehia, Tunis , Sunday 26 Feb 2017
Tunisia PM
Tunisia's Prime Minister Youssef Chahid (Photo: Reuters)
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Tunisia is on the verge of a political crisis -- the most dangerous since the formation of a national unity government last summer -- following a limited Saturday cabinet reshuffle that sacked a minister and a former leader of the country's prominent Tunisian General Labour Union.

Immediately after the sackings were announced, the union called an urgent meeting on Sunday -- an official holiday in Tunisia -- to discuss the conflict.

The union is one of the largest in the country and one of the most influential in domestic affairs.

The syndicate is a signatory to the Carthage Declaration, which sets out the policy priorities of the national unity government. The consensus document was suggested by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi last summer and led to the formation of the government.

As an organisation, the union generally rejects having direct representatives in any cabinet; however, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed's government has employed two of the union's leaders: Abid Briki, minister of public functions, who was removed from his post on Saturday, and Mohamed El-Tarabolsi, minister of social affairs.

The reshuffle can be traced to a demand on the part of the union's newly appointed Secretary-General Nour Eddin El-Tabouby calling for the resignation of the education minister, in solidarity with demands by the teachers syndicate and in response to the government’s refusal to negotiate on raising the wages of private sector workers.

In the hours following the reshuffle, the union leaders called for escalation against the government, while the widely circulated Shrouk newspaper ran the headline "fears of breakdown in national unity."

Expelled minister Briki appeared on a TV programme to attack El-Chahed's government policies, threatening to reveal corruption cases he said had been presented before the government but were all ignored.

Chahed has appointed Ahmed Adhoum and Khalil Ghariani, as ministers of religious affairs and public functions, respectively, following the sackings.

The reshuffle did not include the minister of education, despite calls to expel him in light of his latest dispute with the teachers syndicate.

Sources in the Tunisian General Labour Union considered the appointment of Ghariani, a prominent leader in the Businessmen Union, to succeed Briki as a provocative act. 

Some Tunisia watchers have said the reshuffle could empower the country’s Ennahda Islamist party in the government, by also expelling Faisal El Hafyan, former deputy minister of trade.

Reports suggested this move favoured the Secretary-General of Ennahda Ziad El-Azari, with whom El-Hafyan had a recent political and media feud.

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