On Wednesday February 3, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi sat for a live televised half hour interview with Elyes Gharbi of El Wataniya 1. The politically focused interview touched on the recent crisis within Beji Caid Essebsi’s own Nidaa Tounes party, Nidaa Tounes’ and Essebsi’s relationship with Ennahda and the performance and job security of Prime Minister Habib Essid.
President Essebsi distanced himself from coalition partner Ennahda, emphasizing that he was not a “Nahdhaoui” within the first few minutes of the interview, in response to criticism of that he was ruling too closely with Ennahda.
Though Essebsi qualified this disclaimer by acknowledging the need to cooperate with the once junior (now senior) coalition member in light of Ennahda’s electoral clout, justifying its prominence within the ruling coalition “as president of all Tunisians, acknowledging Ennahda’s second place finish in the 2014 election “I have to take into account the outcome of the elections and the choice of people who alone are sovereign.”
Though, in case his claim not to be a “Nahdaoui” had not been clear enough Essebsi added “I owe nothing to Ennahda and it is the people who chose who will govern the country,”
On the subject of Prime Minister Habib Essid, a technocratic head of government without affiliation to either Nidaa Tounes or Ennahda, who will have been in office for exactly one year tomorrow February 5. Essebsi defended the appointment of Essid as Prime Minister saying “The choice of a non- partisan head of government was a good choice, because the government is not that of any particular party, but of the people as a whole,”
With regards to the performance of Essid’s government, whom is currently hospitalized with an unspecified ‘medical ailment’, prompting a bedside visit from Essebsi hours before the interview, Essebsi stood by his Prime Minister.
Essebsi argued the difficulties of reforming and running Tunisia: “the essential role of government is to set in motion the great reforms, but he [Essid] found himself obliged to deal with everyday problems and to find solutions. ” adding “the government’s performance is acceptable, because to appreciate this performance, it is necessary to know the situation in the country, and this situation is changing,”
President Essebsi, himself in separate statements issued at the outset of the protests, had called Tunisia’s economic a ‘difficult situation’ for which the government needed time. Recognizing the growing impatience of many, including the recent unemployed protesters, who expected the sweeping political revolution of 2011 would be accompanied by equally profound socio-economic changes.
With regards to speculation that the Prime Minister might be replaced, President Essebsi stated “Habib Essid will remain in his post and there exists no intention to replace him.” Already lacking the political allies brought by a party affiliation Habib Essid, with his self-effacing and short spoken style, has not curried much favor in the press. Although it should be noted that in a poll, recently conducted by Conseil-Sigma of Tunisia’s most popular political figures, the apolitical Essid finished third slightly ahead of President Essebsi himself.
The press and several members of Nidaa Tounes have speculated that a series of meetings with high profile political figures in recent weeks by President Essebsi may have been an interview process for Essid’s replacement.
Some of the rumors circled around former interim Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, also an unaffiliated technocrat, who has announced the formation of a think-tank cum political program ‘Tunisia Alternatives’.
Regarding the Nidaa Tounes crisis, which has been shedding members since its former Secretary General Mohsen Marzouk announced he was forming his own, as of yet unnamed political party and bringing a sizeable portion of Nidaa Tounes with him. A split resulting from a long simmering feud between Marzouk and the President’s own son Hafedh Caid Essebsi over the future leadership of Nidaa Tounes, the President acknowledged “Nidaa Tounes has paid a high price because of the dispute of its executives.”