The weeks-long negotiations over the appointment of a new Prime Minister who will be charged with forming a transitional government that will guide Tunisia to the next election has finally produced a result. On Sunday, the political forces and the so-called quartet lead by the influential Tunisian labor union, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) as a mediating force between the parties, has announced the name of the person in charge of forming a new government. Mehdi Jomaa has been named Prime Minister. Jomaa is currently Minister of Industry in the government formed by the “Troika” –Ennahda, Ettakatol, and the Congress for the Republic—and is considered a non-partisan figure. The reasons behind the decision were threefold: his supposed neutrality, his young age, and the fact that, as an industry-oriented figure he will be able to tackle the most serious and compelling issues facing Tunisia’s future, namely those related to the economic crisis.
Surely the prime minister’s young age, fifty-one, is a point in his favor only if we consider the average age of the members of the current political class and the age of the other candidate that had been previously chosen to play the role assigned to Jomaa: ninety-two year old Mustafa Filali. The latter had been Minister of Agriculture under the first government of Habib Bourguiba, the founding father of modern Tunisia, in 1956. That the Tunisian parties were considering such a figure speaks to how minimal their innovative and revolutionary intentions were in the selection of the new head of government. Moreover, many have expressed doubts regarding the point of Jomaa’s neutrality. Although he is not a politician by profession and has largely remained out of the ideological confrontation between Islamists and leftists—a confrontation that has characterized Tunisian society from the 1980s onward—the fact that he is part of the current Ennahda-led government has raised doubts about his political neutrality. Indeed, his candidacy was unanimously approved by all three parties in the ruling coalition and has created a new rift within the opposition. The largest opposition party, Nida Tounes, has even prematurely withdrawn from the vote, while the Popular Front and Joumhouri have expressed their adverse opinion to Jomaa’s appointment, denouncing a shortly inclusive system of appointment. The decision, in fact, has been taken without the approval of the entire opposition and it is being perceived as an imposed act.
Therefore, what was supposed to be the national dialogue has now produced new rifts between the two main opposing political fronts. The dialogue has also failed to propose a name for the new government that would truly represent all the forces in Tunisian society—both political and social, especially the Tunisian youth and the lower social classes, segments of Tunisian society that are most excluded from the current transition phase. In fact, it is on the social front that the game for the future of Tunisia will be played: the country’s socio-economic data continues to be worrisome and, most importantly, months of political deadlock have exacerbated these conditions. The appointment of the new prime minister would have put an end to this phase and would have started a new period for the transition in Tunisia, until the next elections that would have determined new political balances. From this point of view, it seems unlikely that Jomaa can bring about a new revolution in the country, being a representation of an elite that is distant from the people, as Tunisians are more and more affected by high levels unemployment, economic difficulties, and suffer a general lack of adequate representation. Above all, Tunisian politics seems to be distant from the youth who, three years ago, contributed to the fall of Ben Ali’s regime with their protests. To them, the choice of a new prime minister is seen just as a cosmetic change that will hardly defuse tensions and social unrest, while demonstrations, strikes and clashes continue to take place. In November, the Union of Unemployed Graduates had organized a rally in the capital Tunis protesting against what is described as a strategy of control of Ennahda over administrations though the appointment of its affiliates in the public sector. A general strike was called throughout the country to protest against the lack of adequate labor politics and of infrastructure development, with hard clashes registered in the neglected Gafsa region. On that occasion, an Ennahda office had even been set on fire. The North-East/South-West divide is particularly difficult, as the latter’s region remain highly underdeveloped and interested by manifestation and strikes. Moreover, the political difficulties reverberate in the economic performance. Foreign investments are struggling to regain a foothold and the economy is growing at the slowest rate since the transition has started (for the first time after 2011, the gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate has returned to below three percent). As such, the labor force cannot be absorbed and unemployment continues to be very high, with a rate of about seventeen percent. In this context, naming a successful businessman operating in Paris as the head of a new cabinet should have helped Tunisia strengthen its economic performance and defuse mistrust by the foreign investors, but the mission seems difficult to realize as structural reforms remain blocked and the formation of a new government could still face difficulties. In 2013, the African Development Bank cancelled a $300 million credit because of the unstable climate and the uncertainty for the future. At the same time, the Tunisian government has been negotiating for months a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Last June, the IMF had approved a two-year $1.74 billion loan calling for major reforms aimed at reducing budget deficit and had urged Tunisia to restructure its baking sector. An initial $150 million tranche has been transferred in June, and Tunisia should have received an identical amount in September. However, the political situation has deteriorated since then and on 4 December a new IMF mission ended with the recommendation not to allow a new disbursement. Qatar alone continues to help the Ennahda-led government. Last November, Tunisia and Qatar signed a $500 million loan agreement to be paid back in five years, but should the Islamist party loose power, would this politically-oriented (Qatar has remained one of the few actors sustaining Muslim Brotherhood-oriented parties abroad) credit policy continue to be granted?
Two other phenomena are also making an impact on the economic situation and the political deadlock: political violence and assassinations. The first occurred with the killing of two members of the opposition, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, which took place last July, sparking the current political crisis. The political violence initially manifested itself in the peripheral areas of the border with Algeria and primarily against military targets. However, last October two suicide attacks in Sousse (in which only the bomber died) and Monastir (this one eventually foiled), have shown a worrying trend of the “urbanization” of political violence, which could further destabilize the country. As political violence becomes more urbanized, it not only involves the security apparatus, but also the Tunisian community as a whole. While these phenomena can be traced to external infiltrations—especially related to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—it is not excluded that some individual cases may be the direct result of the frustration of young citizens disappointed by the current political condition. In this sense, it is important to keep an eye on the evolution of the Salafi movement, Ansar al- Shari‘a, banned by the Ennahda-led government and, therefore, the protagonist of a more direct confrontation with state institutions, as demonstrated by the recent Salafist rally that took place on 17 December. Therefore, Ansar al- Shari‘a could further radicalize as a result of the government’s repressive policy, and its position vis-a-vis state institutions is hardening and could bring renewed clashes. So far, the Ennahda policy towards the Salafis has shown a quite contradictory attitude. At the beginning, Ghannouchi’s party tried to involve them in the democratic transition, in order not to lose the most conservative electoral base and to moderate the Salafi movements. However, at the same time, secular opposition parties have denounced the supposed collusion between the Islamist governing party and the radical Salafi movements, placing pressure on Ennahda to distance itself from the Salafis. Though the Salafis` responsibility for the political violence has not been clearly proven, it gave Ennahda the occasion to clamp down on Ansar al-Shari‘a, following a double strategy. On the one hand, by repressing the Salafis, Ennahda attempted to exert a more moderate stance to the opposition in order not to be ousted from power. On the other hand, the new repressive strategy is probably intended to reassure the population about the efficiency of the government`s "anti-terrorist" policies, regardless of whether or not Ansar al-Shari‘a is actually culpable for the political violence. In this sense, some sources have highlighted the opportunist policy of the Tunisian ruling elite, capable of eliminating a possible source of opposition, such as the most radical Islamists, using the political violence as a pretext. Indeed, in doing so, Ennahda has contributed to further polarizing Tunisian society, making the situation more tense.
What will the appointment of the new prime minister yield? On the one hand, it is important to state that this is only a first step toward the formation of a new government, which must be preceded by a hard-won agreement between the ruling parties and the opposition on the constitution and on the date of the next elections. On the other hand, it must be stressed that Jomaa’s appointment appears to be a winning move for Ennahda. In fact, the decision has weakened all of its main political opponents. The opposition is again divided, as they missed a common approach during the last phase of the negotiations; the greatest union in the country and the main negotiator, the UGTT, has provoked the disappointment of those who hoped for a radical change; finally, with the Islamist forces backing in the square and continuing to protest against the government, and amid tensions resulting from political violence, Ennahda can impose the highest standards of securitization. Therefore, Tunisia is to start the new phase of democratic transition with the major issues still unresolved. The socio-economic crisis, the failure of renewal of the political elite–whether it is an expression of political Islam, as in the case of Ennahda, or of the secular forces–and the deep rift represented by the division between Islamists and secularists, there are still issues that require resolutions. A new name at the head of a new government who continues to represent the current ruling classes is unlikely to help untie the Tunisian transition’s intricate knots.