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World

Tunisia's new PM, cabinet approved to battle economic woes

  • Tunisia's parliament, elected last October, is deeply divided and many lawmakers were angry that Mechichi.
02 Sep 2020

TUNIS: Tunisia's parliament has approved a new technocratic government tasked with tackling deep social and economic woes in the North African country, ending weeks of uncertainty in the young democracy.

Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi was confirmed by 134-67 votes in an overnight session to lead Tunisia's second cabinet in six months, made up of judges, academics, civil servants and private-sector executives.

The 46-year-old has pledged to revitalise the tourism-reliant economy hit by the coronavirus pandemic and to stop the "hemorrhage" of public finances by restarting oil and phosphate production after recent labour unrest.

"I am proud of this support," Mechichi, the former interior minister, told AFP early Wednesday after the vote, vowing his government would "move forward on economic issues", provided it is not bogged down by political infighting.

Tunisia's parliament, elected last October, is deeply divided and many lawmakers were angry that Mechichi, the candidate picked in July by President Kais Saied, had bypassed the major political factions in building his cabinet.

The Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party, the biggest bloc in parliament, had however said hours before the vote it would back Mechichi "despite reservations", averting a breakdown that would have forced unpopular new elections.

Tunisia has been praised as a rare success story among the 2011 Arab Spring popular uprisings that swept the region and brought down many autocrats, among them Tunisia's long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

But the small Mediterranean country of about 11 million people is now mired in economic crisis, with the official unemployment rate at 18 percent, and in need of new assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

Mechichi's new government will have to resume talks with the IMF, whose four-year programme expired in the spring while Tunisia struggled to complete its budget.

The new premier warned of "dangerous indicators", with a debt of about 80 billion dinars ($30 billion), and 7.5 billion dinars due to be repaid in 2020.

The chairman of Ennahdha's advisory board, Abdelkarim Harouni, had said Tuesday the party would back Mechichi "given the difficult situation of the country" but would then seek to "develop and reform this government".

The vote is the result of a power struggle between the president, a trained jurist who had strongly intervened in building the new government, and the main parties, who were angered at being sidelined but now hope to have influence on the government.

The new defence minister, Ibrahim Bartagi, is a law professor from the university where Saied worked. Justice Minister Mohamed Boussetta is a magistrate. And the new interior minister, Taoufik Charfeddine, is another former lawyer close to the president.

Hamza Meddeb, of political think tank the Carnegie Center, said that in the end the new government gained legitimacy by winning the support of Ennahdha and its allies, including the liberal Qalb Tounes party.

"Mr Saied wanted a prime minister at his command, the presidency intervened a lot in the composition of the government, and Mr Mechichi ended up turning around and seeking party support to assert himself as head of government," Meddeb said.

Parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahdha, said that in the end the assembly "showed that it was the heart of power in this country".

Mechichi's new government, he said, "can solve the economic, health and security problems, I am convinced of its success".

Meddeb said Ennahdha had "found someone it hopes to compromise with" but also cautioned that "there's discord at the top state level ... Saied could make life difficult for this government."

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