There is a lot of talk today in Tunisia about a prospective government reshuffle imposed by the vacancies in key ministries, including education, planning and finance. This article may be published simultaneously with a statement by Prime Minister Youssef Al-Shahed regarding his new government, but my purpose here is to look for the tree hidden in the forest.
The two main governing parties disagree on the nature of the reshuffle. The Nidaa Tounes leadership wants it to be radical and include a wide range of ministries. Ennahda objects to this and insists on it being a partial reshuffle. It has called for changes in the other ministries to be postponed until after December’s municipal elections.
Nidaa Tounes is not happy with this. “This time,” insists Hafiz Caid Essebsi, the party’s Executive Director and son of the state President, “Nidaa Tounes will not accept another coup against the people’s choice represented by the results of the 2014 elections.” He demanded that his party should take the lion’s share of the ministries, based on the fact that his party won the elections three years ago.
However, he does not take into account important changes that were made after the elections, the most important of which (in this context) was the split of Nidaa Tounes into three distinct parties. This basically resulted in it losing the top spot in parliament to Ennahda, which ended up with significantly more MPs. The popular legitimacy referred to by Essebsi is history and has lost its political meaning; all that is left is the constitutional aspect.
Despite this, Nidaa Tounes remains an important party and a necessary partner in the government, regardless of the fact that it is suffering from a complex structural crisis. The fear is that the government’s reshuffle will turn into a means by which it can alleviate the severity of this crisis, thus transferring its internal conflicts onto the next government. This is feared by the party leader, Prime Minister Al-Shahed, unlike Essebsi Junior and other key members. Accordingly, this may be the reason that the next government may be flawed, if not paralysed from within.
For its part, Ennahda is uncomfortable with Nidaa Tounes’ desire to control the new structure of the government. Nevertheless, it is still keen to retain the party as a partner in the government, but refuses to be drawn in an unknown direction.
However, Ennahda also seems to be progressing without a precise compass, as the statements made by the party leader, Sheikh Rashid Al-Ghannouchi, some time ago, still have an effect and count against him. His relationship with Ennahda is cautious, and is doubted by many.
Ennahda differs from Nidaa Tounes in that it wants to prove, through the municipal elections, that it is the top political force in Tunisia which can declare a veto in the face of its main partner in government. For this reason, it is refusing to change the sovereign ministries, beginning with the Interior Ministry, of which Nidaa Tounes wants to take charge; it claims that the Interior Minister wants to resign. However, the Minister himself has denied this.
Hence, the ministry reshuffle has turned into a test of power between the two ruling partners. Whichever party imposes its conditions will control the equations in the period remaining before the legislative and presidential elections, which may reveal a new balance of power.
This in turn might result in the end of this strange alliance that saw Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes come together. Whether Al-Shahed speeds up this reshuffle, as reported by some sources, or postpones it, it is unlikely that he will accept all of the conditions set by the main players in Nidaa Tounes; if he does, he will have lost control of his government team. On the other hand, he will not sever all ties that link him to Ennahda, because by doing so, he will be casting his government in a rough sea.
The main card that the Prime Minister has to play at the moment is the confidence and trust that the President has in him, and his support during this difficult stage. Some analysts believe that this will witness unprecedented economic and social difficulties — perhaps even security difficulties — in the days, weeks and months ahead.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 5 September 2017
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.