After two weeks of intense negotiations with trade unions, political parties and independent lawmakers, Yousuf Shahed, Tunisia’s new Prime Minster, presented his unity government to President Beji Qaid Al Sebsi on August 20. Although Tunisia’s two biggest parties — Nidaa Tunis and Al Nahda — retained sizeable representation in the new government, small parties, such as Massar, received key ministerial positions too. If it is approved, Shahed’s will be Tunisia’s seventh government since the removal of former president Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali in January 2011, with Habib Al Sid’s government being the latest to fall.
Al Sid was appointed prime minister by President Al Sebsi in February 2015, following an agreement between Nidaa Tunis — which had won a majority of seats in the country’s latest legislative elections — and Al Nahda — which had won 69 out of the 217 parliamentary seats, finishing in second place. At its formation, Al Sid’s cabinet enjoyed wide support across Tunisia’s political spectrum. Nidaa Tunis, Al Nahda, the Free Patriotic Union and Afek Tunis had all supported Al Sid’s ruling coalition, giving it a total of 166 out of the 217 votes in parliament. As terrorism struck the country, threatening to plunge it into chaos, Tunisia’s political forces rallied around the Al Sid government.
With massive political backing, Al Sid’s Cabinet managed to steer the country towards the shore of safety. Yet, success has come with a price: Members in the leading Nidaa Tunis party began to openly demand that the prime minister be replaced with someone more closely in line with their own political positions. Al Sebsi responded by calling for a national dialogue. The meeting at the presidential palace brought together nine political parties and the country’s three biggest trade unions (the General Labour Union, the Agrarian Union and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts). At the end of the meeting, the participants agreed on a communique that they termed as the “Carthage Declaration”. It set out a list of principles that any future government would be expected to meet. The implication was that Al Sid’s government was not living up to these expectations. Hence, the communique, issued on June 13, explicitly called for the formation of a new government that would abide by the principles set forth by the parties concerned.
The communique was hence seen as an explicit call for Al Sid to step down. It was then followed by open calls for his resignation. Yet, the fact that the very same political forces that had put Al Sid in office sought his removal, left many Tunisians perplexed. This was particularly true in view of Al Sid’s clear success in fighting terrorism — a major concern for the country. Al Sid challenged the calls for his removal by requesting a vote of confidence on June 30. He charged that failures, if any, should not weigh on him alone and that a number of other parties, including the largest political blocs, the president and civil society groups, should also be held to account. Forcing him to resign, Al Sid claimed, would be equivalent to holding him responsible for all the difficulties faced by Tunisia. However, this logic did not seem to assuage lawmakers. While nearly all of them acknowledged his accomplishments in the war against terrorism, a majority still voted to push Al Sid out of office.
An unprecedented development
With Al Sid holding on to his constitutional authority, President Al Sebsi tried to regain the initiative by calling for the formation of a national unity government. This move only served to create the impression of an open conflict between the country’s two top officials — an unprecedented development in modern Tunisian history. It also gave the appearance that the president was attempting to consolidate power, an impression only heightened by the eventual choice made for Al Sid’s replacement — with Shahed being a distant relative of the Tunisian president.
Now that Al Sid is out and Shahed is in, questions are already being asked as to what more will the new Cabinet be able to accomplish beyond what Al Sid’s government had already achieved. With half of the parliament’s term expired, the new Cabinet has yet to offer an answer. Moreover, the problems faced by Tunisians today are far too great for any single political faction to sort out. Instead, the country’s political and intellectual leaders must find a way to combine forces first to take responsibility for the present crises and then try to solve them.
Until then, the reality is only likely to get worse. The one point of change may come from the decision to incorporate Tunisia’s agrarian and trades syndicates into the process of drafting the Carthage Document. This may indicate that all that Al Sebsi is trying to do is to bring all of Tunisia’s political and social forces to share responsibility in taking on the great challenges that lie ahead.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer.