By Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall
TUNIS -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,” Saied said at the ceremony to swear in the government. The period of exceptional measures would continue “as long as there is an imminent danger,” he added.
Saied has thrust the democratic gains of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution into doubt with his seizure of executive authority https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/tunisian-presidents-feud-with-party-elites-drove-him-seize-reins-power-2021-08-08 and suspension of the elected parliament, and has given no clear programme to restore normal constitutional order.
He has awarded himself the power https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/tunisia-president-takes-new-powers-says-will-reform-system-2021-09-22 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, 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 https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/now-charge-tunisian-president-faces-looming-fiscal-crisis-2021-08-17 by pausing talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue package, and the Central Bank governor has warned of dire economic consequences.
There are also growing fears of street confrontations https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/thousands-protest-against-tunisia-leader-with-government-awaited-2021-10-10 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”.
Foreign donors and powerful internal players such as the UGTT labour union had put Saied under pressure 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.
Senior UGTT official Sami Tahri said the union welcomed the formation of the government, adding “public finances must be an urgent priority. As major reforms must be the subject of broad agreement and need time… it cannot be the task of a transitional government”.
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, that 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 former colonial power 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”.