Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, in a nationally televised interview with “Watanyia 1” aired on Thursday, told Tunisia there were “concrete plans” for the formation government of national unity on the “basis of a broad national consensus about the priorities of Tunisia”. Four days after Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi proposed the formation of new government his plans for it are no clearer.
There had been speculation that Prime Minister Essid would tender his resignation at Monday’s meeting with Essebsi, instead the meeting ended with a generic press release from the office of the Presidency said only that the two had ‘discussed the general situation in the country’ as well as ‘the formation of a national unity government and means to bring about all the conditions for its success.’
The government of Prime Minister Habib Essid, appointed in February 2015 as the first government approved under the 2014 Constitution and had already undergone a major reshuffle in January of this year was described by Essebsi as “acceptable” and “average” was “blamed for not having informed the people right from the beginning about the reality of the situation in the country, especially at the economic level and financial difficulties.”
In other words, the Essid government has progressed too slowly in its efforts to implement economic reforms as the dynamics of negotiations between the government and UGTT have broken down. Too many rounds of talks between the labor union and various government ministries over austerity measures and reforms have seen the two sides engage in a sector by sector form of trench warfare.
To break this stalemate, Essebsi’s proposal for a government of national unity would maintain the current government coalition (Essebsi’s own Nidaa Tounes, Ennahda, Afek Tounes and the UPL.) and consolidate support for the government by “perhaps” bringing in opposition parties.
Essebsi, added that “necessarily” the proposed government must include Tunisia’s two largest business and labor unions, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA).
Whatever role Essebsi had in mind, he did not specify, it would have forced the UGTT into negotiating more comprehensively. However, Essebsi’s attempt to coopt the UGTT’s into government was rebuffed when the day after his interview the first meeting President Essebsi held was with Houcine Abassi, the head of the UGTT who said afterwards “Our policy in the UGTT is to not participate in any government. We will not join in the unity government but we support this proposal,”
On Monday in addition to reaffirming the UGTT’s non participation, UGTT spokesman, Sami Tahri, told Shems FM that by frequently referring to economic issues in his interview the President had singled out the UGTT and that through the proposal “the President wanted to push the UGTT into playing its role outside of a posture of criticism and to participate in finding solutions.” While reaffirming the UGTT’s refusal to formally participate in government, Tahri added “There is somewhere, open to all, a door to dialogue and we will participate in the debate.”
The UGTT which is older than and outsizes the political parties that comprise the coalition, save perhaps Ennahda, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 to it for its role as a part of the ‘National Dialogue Quartet’ which resolved a crisis between Islamists and secularists and led to the 2014 Constitution and in turn the current government. Now the tables have turned and according to Essebsi at least it is the UGTT and the government which are at an impasse. Without the UGTT on board Essebsi can still seek a change in tone and leadership, “perhaps” tinker with the coalition with an eye to the local municipal elections scheduled for March 2017.
The leadership of two largest parties in the coalition (Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes also known as the Islamists and secularists the UGTT once helped bring together) also discussed the President’s proposal on Monday. Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, attended a meeting at the headquarters of President Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party in Tunis, where Ghannouchi met with Nidaa’s executive leadership headed by Essebsi’s son Hafedh Caid Essebsi.
Later in the day President Essebsi also met with Mohamed Ennaceur, the speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP), to discuss the proposal for the formation of a national unity government. If Prime Minister Essid is replaced, which seems likely, the entire government would have to be approved in a ARP that is significantly changed from when Essid was appointed a year and a half ago.
Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes lost a third of its seats in the ARP to the Al-Horra bloc with formed from Nidaa during a rift over the role of the President’s son Hafedh in party leadership. In the process Nidaa Tounes also lost its status as largest parliamentary bloc to Ennahda.
While Habib Essid was chosen specifically because he was a non-partisan technocrat, this has ironically deprived Essid of the political allies and support needed to engage with the UGTT effectively, if Essebsi nominates a Nidaa Tounes Prime Minister the other coalition parties or “perhaps” an opposition party will want something in return. Particularly Ennahda who may want more ministries if the Prime Minister is no longer neutral.