Forming Mechichi Government in Tunisia: Political Implications and Potential Future Trajectories

​Shereen Mohammed | 31 Aug 2020

On 25 August 2020, Tunisia’s prime minister-designate Hichem Mechichi announced the formation of the new Tunisian government, which comprises 28 portfolios, between ministers and ministers of state. The composition must gain confidence by a majority (at least 109 votes out of a total of 217 votes) during the session of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People of Tunisia (Parliament), which is scheduled to take place in early September 2020. This paper analyses the political significance of the formation of the Mechichi government, and presents the possible scenarios for its approval and the most important expectations regarding its future performance.

Political significance of the formation of the Mechichi government

1. The centrality of the President’s role: the Mechichi government is the second after the government of Elyes Fakhfakh, which is called in Tunisia the “President’s government”, in reference to the choice by the country's President Kais Saied of the person who forms the government and assumes the position of prime minister (PM). After the failure by the Ennahda Movement’s candidate Habib Jemli to pass his government in Parliament after failing to gain confidence, President Saied designated Elyes Fakhfakh who formed his government in February 2020.[1] After Fakhfakh’s resignation in July 2020, the Tunisian President designated Hichem Mechichi to form the new government.

In this context, it was noticed that occupants of the sovereign ministries are associated with the person of President Kais Saied, such as the Minister of Foreign Affairs Othman al-Jarandi who was a former adviser to the President, as well as the Minister of the Interior Tawfiq Sharaf al-Din who was responsible for running Saied’s election campaign in the recent presidential elections, in addition to Hichem Mechichi himself who had previously held the position of Senior Adviser to the President for Legal Affairs. Perhaps this reflects a significant encroachment in the power of President Saied, despite the fact that the Tunisian political system is a “modified parliamentary system”, which grants significantly great powers to Parliament and the PM who is appointed by a parliamentary majority that can also remove him.[2]

2. Exclusion of party candidates, including those affiliated with the Ennahda movement, and the choice of technocratic figures who have not previously worked in government services, although some ministers have party affiliations, such as Ali Hafsi (Minister Responsible for Relations with Parliament) who belongs to the Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) Party, and Muhammad Fadhel Kraiem (Minister of Communications Technology) who belongs to the Long Live Tunisia (Tahya Tounes) Party. Moreover, Mechichi himself was not one of the names proposed by the main parties to President Kais Saied to choose the Prime Minister from among them.[3]

3. Wide representation of women: eight female ministers (7 ministers and one minister of state) were selected, compared to six in the government of Fakhfakh. These are Leila Jafal as Minister of State Properties, Akissa Bahri as Minister of Agriculture, Salwa al-Saghir as Minister of Industry and Energy, Iman Hoimel as Minister of Women, Family and Childhood, and Olfa Benouada as Minister of Higher Education. Hasna bin Sulaiman was designated as Minister Responsible for Public Office, and Thouraya Jeribi as Minister Responsible for Relations with the Civil Society. In addition, Sihem Ayadi was designated as Undersecretary of the Ministry of Youth and Sports. Thus, women constituted 28.5 percent of the composition of the Mechichi government, which is one of the highest ratios recorded at the level of the successive governments that assumed office in Tunisia since the 2011 Revolution.[4]

4. Merging the ministries of the economy, especially finance, investment, development, and state properties, into one ministry, namely the Ministry of Economy, Finance and Investment Support, which was assigned to Ali al-Kali who has extensive economic experience. Through this step, Mechichi aims to restructure the government on the one hand, and help solve the country's economic problems on the other, given the economic expertise that Kali gained through his presidency of the Arab Banking Corporation in Tunis, as well as through his work in a number of banks in a number of Arab countries. He is also relied upon in dealing with international institutions and creditor countries in light of the country's severe financial difficulties.[5]

Possible scenarios for the approval of the Mechichi government

First scenario: the government is granted confidence, with the aim of avoiding holding new parliamentary elections at a high financial cost in light of the difficult economic conditions that the country is currently experiencing. Besides, the current parliamentary blocs may lose the political gains they have attained in the event of new elections whereby the balance of power among those parties may change.[6]

According to this scenario, the Ennahda Movement and the rest of the political parties are likely to vote in favour of this government, thus allowing it to embark on its work. Besides, the fact that representatives of the Ennahda Movement were not designated to participate in this government would encourage voting for this government by opposition political parties, including the Free Constitutional Party led by Abeer Moussa, which required that Mechici refrain from choosing the Ennahda Movement in his government as a main condition for voting in favour of his government in Parliament. In addition, Mechichi’s government has the support of a number of political parties, especially the National People's Movement, the National Reform Bloc, and Long Live Tunisia, which announced earlier their support. In the event that the Ennahda Movement’s Shura Office takes a decision to support this government, it would obtain the Parliament’s confidence.

In that case, the main motive for passing the composition of the Mechichi government would be the need for being preoccupied with the priorities of achieving economic and security stability concomitantly, especially in light of the economic crises and potential security threats and risks facing the country due to the developments of the military situation in Libya on the one hand, and the dangers of terrorist organisations on the other hand.

Second scenario: the government is not passed. In that case, early parliamentary elections would be called. This is made likely in view of the opposition by some of the political parties represented in the current Parliament to the new government. Those parties have been excluded and their candidates were not chosen to hold ministerial positions. Therefore, those parties argue that voting for the new government would make it a government that does not represent the parties or their representative blocs inside Parliament,[7] which means that it would not gain confidence. The Ennahda Movement had previously threatened not to vote for a government that did not represent it, expressing its rejection of a government of technocrats and its insistence on forming an elected political government.

Upon review of both scenarios, the first scenario could be considered plausible based on the previously mentioned cost-benefit criterion.

Prospects for the performance of the Mechichi government

In case the government of Hichem Mechichi gains confidence during the session of the Tunisian Parliament scheduled for 1 September 2020, it will face pressing challenges that would affect its level of performance, most importantly the following:

1. The dilemma of compatibility with the Ennahda Movement, being the majority bloc in Parliament. Ennahdha’s position on Mechichi continues to be hesitant since he was chosen as Minister of the Interior in the resigned government because he lacks a security background. While the Ennahdha Movement may eventually approve of Mechichi’s government, one of the reasons behind its conservative stance stems from Mechichi’s refusal to use force to disperse the sit-in of the Free Constitutional Party representatives in Parliament in objection to the practices of its Speaker Rached Ghannouchi.[8] The same is true for the Democratic Current, some of whose symbols, such as Nabil Hajji, declared that they would not grant confidence to the Mechichi government because - according to Hajji - it does not have a programme and has not developed a roadmap or vision.[9]

2. Overcoming the multiple economic crises. This requires the development of effective solutions, economic measures and financial policies to eliminate the internal problems that have increased as a result of the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic crisis and the impact that this had on the country’s important economic sectors, especially the tourism sector. The situation may be exacerbated by the possibilities of a "second wave" of the epidemic in September 2020 in a way that would affect the already faltering economic situation. The bulletin issued by the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics in August 2020 indicates that the Tunisian economy has contracted during the first half of 2020 by 21.6 percent compared to the same period in 2019, and that the unemployment rate rose to 18 percent in the second quarter of 2020.[10]

3. Dealing with the "regional" factional protests, against the background of objection to the deteriorating economic and living conditions of citizens in a number of Tunisian states, especially in the west and south. According to the findings of the Tunisian Social Observatory of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), July 2020 witnessed nearly 798 protest movements, more than half of which were recorded in the western regions. The Gafsa Governorate has been the scene of 319 protests, accounting for 39.9 percent of the total protests witnessed in the various states of Tunisia. The groups involved in the protests vary, including the unemployed, workers in economic establishments and institutions, temporary-contract workers, and university graduates.[11]

4. Countering terrorist groups in the peripheral regions in southern Tunisia, which coincided with the escalation of the activities of terrorist organisations, especially in Libya. During the past period, the Tunisian security services have succeeded in dismantling a number of terrorist sleeper cells in the country. On 9 July 2020, the Ministry of the Interior announced that the National Unit for the Investigation of Terrorist Crimes at the General Directorate of the Specialized National Security Services has succeeded in thwarting terrorist plots by one of the sleeper cells affiliated with Daesh (IS) organisation that was targeting various domestic targets, specifically the tourism sector and a number of sovereign headquarters in the capital Tunis. The security forces managed to arrest the main person responsible for that cell.[12]

Conclusion

While the Mechichi government is likely to gain confidence in Parliament so that the dissolution of the latter may be avoided, its chances of success will remain slim, especially that Mechichi has no background and experience in managing economic files, even as the Tunisian public finance is experiencing a sharp decline, in addition to the absence of the political support of the government after the parties’ proposals have been disregarded, considering that the PM does not belong to an influential political party with a popular base supporting it. Mechichi’s only credentials are the support he gets from the presidency establishment.

Endnotes

[1] For more details, see: Zied Boussen, “Tunisia: New Government, New Dynamics?”, Arab Reform Initiative, 24 June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2GhrMHb

Tarek Amara, “Tunisia premier designate names a technocratic government”, Reuters, 25 August 2020. Available at: https://reut.rs/2YUsd0r

[2] Mokhtar Dabbabi, “President’s government II: Kais Saied overcomes the parties”, alarab, 28 July 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/34YQ2Z5

See also: “Tunisia: from presidential to ‘modified parliamentary’ system”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 10 August 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2YPwRNf

[3] See: “Tunisian prime minister-designate decides to exclude parties from forthcoming composition”, eremnews, 10 August 2020. Available at: https://www.eremnews.com/news/maghreb-news/2276960.

See also: “Why did the Tunisian President exclude party nominees in the choice of a new prime minister?”, Libyan alwasat, 28 July 2020. Available at: http://alwasat.ly/news/international/290671

[4] “Tunisia: Mechichi announces the formation of a technocratic government”, al-arabiya.net, 25 August 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Ev2CV3 

See also: “Tunisia: prime minister-designate announces the formation of a non-partisan technocratic government”, france24, 25 August 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/31D6lZk  

[5] “Mechichi intends to ‘merge ministries’”, skynewsarabia, 23 August 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2EJYbWb

[6] “Tunisian parties have no choice but to grant confidence to the Mechichi government”, alarab, 23 August 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/32ExjPt 

[7] Mongi Saidani, “Tunisia: the Mechichi government awaits confidence ordeal”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 26 August 2020.

[8] “Ennahda Movement rejects the formation of a government of independents in Tunisia”, skynewsarabia, 10 August 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/34JsLdm

[9] In this connection, see: Mongi Saidani, “Tunisia: Democratic Current refuses to grant confidence to Mechichi’s government”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 25 August 2020; Mongi Saidani, “Tunisia: the independence of some members of the Mechichi government questioned”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 27 August 2020.

[10] For more details on the economic conditions in Tunisia, see the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics website at: http://www.ins.tn/ar/front

See also: “Tunisia’s economy contracts by 21.6 percent on an annual basis”, al-arabiya.net, 15 August 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/32D2dI6

[11] See the report “July 2020 Bulletin on collective protests, suicide and violence”, Tunisian Social Observatory, 12 August 2020. Available at: https://ftdes.net/rapports/ar.juillet2020.pdf

[12] “Tunisia: Thwarting a terrorist operation in the south of the country”, rt.com, 20 July 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2GcoQLV

 

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