Africa

Tunisia unveils new government but with no sign of end to crisis

Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhane poses for a picture during her meeting with Tunisia's President Kais Saied, in Tunis, Tunisia September 29, 2021. Tunisian Presidency-Handout via REUTERS

Tunisia’s president unveiled a new government on Monday but gave no hint when he would relinquish his near-total control after seizing most powers in July or start reforms needed for a financial rescue package to avert economic disaster.

Under rules President Kais Saied announced last month when he swept aside much of the constitution in moves critics called a coup, the new cabinet will ultimately answer to him rather than Prime Minister Najla Bouden.

Several of the main cabinet members, including the foreign and finance ministers, were already serving Saied in an interim capacity, while the new interior minister is one of his staunchest allies.

“I am confident we will move from frustration to hope,” said Saied at the ceremony to swear in the government, while railing against “any who threaten the state”.

Saied has thrust the democratic gains of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution into doubt with his seizure of executive authority and suspension of the elected parliament and has given no clear programme to restore normal constitutional order.

He has awarded himself the power to appoint a committee to amend the 2014 constitution and put it to a popular referendum but has given no further details beyond saying he will soon announce a dialogue with Tunisians.

Though his intervention on July 25 was broadly popular after years of economic stagnation and political paralysis, the opposition has stiffened over the 11 weeks it has taken him to install a new government.

The delay has aggravated Tunisia’s already urgent need for financial support by pausing talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue package, and the Central Bank governor has warned of dire economic consequences.

Meanwhile, there are growing fears of street confrontations between his opponents, who fear his intervention augurs a return to authoritarian rule, and his supporters, who hail it as reclaiming the revolution from an entrenched, corrupt elite.

Resisting calls to reconvene the suspended parliament, which was elected at the same time as him in 2019, he showed a series of photographs of brawls inside the chamber from recent years and called it a parliament of “violence, blood and insults”.

Key Tunisian players including the powerful UGTT labour union, as well as foreign donors, had urged Saied to appoint a government and set a timeline for an inclusive path, including any proposed changes to the political system.

They fear that heavily indebted Tunisia will struggle to finance its 2021 and 2022 budgets, as well as debt repayments, without striking a loan deal with the IMF that could unlock further bilateral assistance.

Any IMF deal would likely require a political roadmap that included broad political and social dialogue, and a plan for reforms to tackle subsidies, the high public sector wage bill and loss-making state companies.

Bouden, whom Saied appointed prime minister last month, said the government’s main priority would be tackling corruption and “restoring hope”. She did not mention an economic reform programme.

Saied said he would soon announce dates for “a real dialogue” in what he said was a contrast to previous ones in Tunisia, which would include youth from all regions of the country.

He also rejected what he called foreign interference in Tunisia, accusing some Tunisian politicians of seeking to poison relations with Western countries, especially France.

Western donors have voiced increasing unease at his moves. Last week the U.S. State Department said it urged Saied “to respond to the Tunisian people’s call for a clear roadmap for a return to a transparent democratic process”.

Saied has since his 2019 election, as an independent and political outsider crusading against corruption in the elite, railed against foreign influence in Tunisian politics.

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