Blame the government

Karam Said, Tuesday 8 Aug 2023

Karam Said keeps up with the latest developments on the Tunisian political scene

Blame the government
President Kais Saied (C) attends a meeting between outgoing prime minister Najla Bouden (R) and incoming Prime Minister Ahmed Hachani (Photo: AFP)

 

On 2 August, against a backdrop of economic crisis, skyrocketing food prices and deteriorating living standards, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed Prime Minister Najla Bouden and appointed Ahmed Al-Hachani in her stead. The Bouden government had come under harsh criticism for its failure to reverse the economic decline epitomised by the plummeting value of the national currency. This task will now become a priority for the Hachani government.

While the Tunisian economy has been chronically strained for years, it has been severely buffeted by the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns in 2021 and then the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine. With economic contraction and foreign debt climbing to about 80 per cent of GDP conditions aggravated by the collapse of talks with the IMF over a desperately needed $1.9 billion loan the Bouden government was compelled to introduce austerity measures that have sparked angry demonstrations across Tunisian towns and cities. Tensions have reached a point that led Ahmed Najib Chebbi, the leader of the largest opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front, to call for a national salvation government based on the outcome of a national dialogue in which President Kais Saied is not participating. Speaking to the press on 4 August, he said, “Tunisia is in a state of disintegration and needs a salvation government that includes diverse political forces and enjoys political support so that it is not isolated and is able to save the country from the crises it is experiencing.”

The newly appointed Hachani government has few notable political figures. As most of its members are drawn from senior staff in its constituent ministries and have no known political affiliations, it could best be described as a government of technocrats. The prime minister, himself, is unaffiliated with a political party and has no previous political involvement. The same had applied to Bouden, who had served as director-general in the Ministry of Higher Education before becoming prime minister. Hachani had served as director-general of the Central Bank.

With this appointment, President Saied undoubtedly wants to signal the beginning of a new era, perhaps believing that the technocrats will inspire renewed confidence in the government and lower the political temperature. However, this action is indicative of the gulf between the president and the main political forces, the opposition bloc above all. Indeed, on the same day that Chebbi called for a national salvation government, the Tunisian president called for “purging the national will” of infiltrators. “We must press forward in purging the administration of those who have infiltrated it and turned it into an obstacle to achievement for any economic, social or other project,” he said, adding, “many projects are ready for implementation and the funds earmarked for them are available. They only lack the genuine will to carry them out.”

That a former Central Bank official has been chosen to replace Bouden signals an imminent shift in the harshly criticised economic policy which has failed to curb the depreciation of the Tunisian dinar, bring down unprecedented inflation rates or put bread on people’s tables. However, it is simultaneously a sign that Saied remains determined to dig in his heels against his political adversaries and their demands. Appointing a government of technocrats with no well-known political figures is probably intended to ensure that the government identifies with him and more clearly expresses his policy outlooks and vision for Tunisia’s future.

Given the current economic and political challenges Tunisia is facing, it is difficult to imagine that the Hachani government will be able to achieve significant success where its predecessor failed. At least in the short to middle term, economists expect production and growth to continue to slow while the budget deficit increases. So, instead of ushering in much needed radical solutions to the multiple crises that grip the country, the new government may end up escalating political polarisation and the general state of frustration and uncertainty. Opposition movements were quick to criticise the new Hachani government, saying that “it does not meet aspirations.” It is likely to find itself at loggerheads above all with the Islamist-oriented Ennahda movement because of their antithetical political outlooks. Hachani supports the secular character of the state and gender equality and opposes the Islamist current.

The Hachani government will have to contend with more than economic challenges. As the protests that have rocked the capital and other cities for several months show, the socio-political climate is seething in response to the austerity measures the previous government had introduced, such as higher taxes on consumer goods, cutbacks in subsidies for strategic commodities including fuel, and plans to reduce staffing levels in public sector organisations and companies. Further driving up the temperature are the demonstrations the opposition forces regularly organise to protest what they describe as President Saied’s “policies of repression” and “authoritarianism” since what they call his “coup against legitimacy” when he dismissed the government of prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and dissolved parliament two years ago.

It may be premature to judge whether the Hachani government can rise to the challenges that lie ahead. Perhaps a government of technocrats is the key to introducing the types of structural reforms needed to spur economic growth. But can it cope with the political challenges and other sources of turmoil?

* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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