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New Tunisian Government Faces Old Challenges

A new, more technocratic Tunisian government, expected to be approved March 12, will face a crippling economic crisis and an even more fractious political environment since the murder of opposition politician Chokri Belaid on Feb. 6, writes Mishca Benoit-Lavelle from Tunis.
Tunisia's Prime Minister Ali Larayedh (L) gives the list of the new coalition government to President Moncef Marzouki in Tunis March 8, 2013. Larayedh unveiled a new Islamist-led coalition government on Friday that he said would serve only until an election is held before the end of the year. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi (TUNISIA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3EQOD

TUNIS, Tunisia – With Prime Minster Ali Larayedh's new government headed for narrow parliamentary approval on Tuesday [March 12], Tunisia is set to make a tired and lumbering exit from its month long political crisis, marked by bickering and lack of unity on all political sides.

The return to stability which should follow will be a welcome relief both to citizens and to investors, who saw Tunisia's sovereign credit rating downgraded by Standard and Poor's as a direct result of the events. But just how long that stability will last will depend on how much the government can improve on its previous record.

After the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid last month, Islamist Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali proposed replacing the country's leaders with non-partisan technocrats, a plan his own party rejected. Jebali stepped down, and Larayedh was charged with forming a new government. After two weeks of negotiations, Ennahdha's secular coalition partners finally managed to convince the party to cede its hold on some important ministries.

“We managed to get the four key ministries given to independents with no links to parties in power or other parties. They are figures that can guarantee the absolute neutrality of the government. That gives a message of confidence,” said Mohammed Bennour, the spokesman for the secularist Ettakatol party, one of Ennahdha's coalition partners.

For many observers, though, that “message of confidence” will sound a bit hollow given the magnitude of Tunisia's problems, first and foremost of which is the problem of extremist violence. The suspected killers of Mr. Belaid are thought to belong to the jihadi Salafi movement, a collection of fundamentalist Islamist groups dominated by the well-organized Ansar al-Sharia. Salafist leaders have so far called Tunisia a “country of advocacy,” winning followers through public works projects and sermons in mosques. But the killing of Belaid could signal that members of the movement wish to turn Tunisia into a “country of jihad,” where armed struggle is justified. In just the last few weeks three major arms raids have turned up significant caches of RPGs and AK-47s.

To be sure, the new appointments provide the government with a much needed injection of experience, not to mention a good few law degrees. Othman Jerandi, the new foreign affairs minister, has been a diplomat for more than 30 years. Nadhir Ben Ammou, who takes over the justice ministry from the much criticized Islamist Noureddine Bhiri, is a respected professor of commercial law. Even the incoming defense minister, Rachid Sabbagh, is a former judge and one-time president of the Court of Cassation, Tunisia's highest court.

And another legal professional will take over the daunting challenge of the security portfolio: Lotfi Ben Jeddou, a former judge and public prosecutor, will be the new interior minister..

Ben Jeddou comes with strong revolutionary bona fides: his last task was leading the investigation into the 21 Tunisians killed during 2011's popular uprising in the impoverished interior region of Kasserine.

“He took up the case of those killed and wounded in Kasserine. He interviewed more than 1,000 people  who protested during the revolution as witnesses,” said Mohamed Neji Gharsali, a fellow prosecutor in the trial.

As Gharsali and others have pointed out, his work on the case has won him the support of the people of Kasserine.

“It's someone who is honest, methodical, serious in his work, and I hope he can continue in this manner  in his new position,” said Fakhri Bou Jidi, a city resident whose brother was killed during the uprising.

However, the question will be whether Ben Jeddou has the muscle to bend an administration dominated by old-regime holdouts to his will. In this regard, the outcome of the Kasserine martyrs' trial was telling: it resulted in the acquittal of Regional Forces Security Director Moncef Laadjimi, to the dismay of many locals who felt certain that the commander was involved in ordering the use of live ammunition. Mr. Laadjimi still retains a high-ranking post within the security forces, and is perhaps emblematic of difficulties Ben Jeddou might face in giving orders to figures he once investigated.

His colleague, Gharsali, conceded: “He could have problems on that side.”

Besides security worries, the new government will have to deal with a crippled economy. Inflation has exceeded 6%, public debt is ballooning, and tourism, a major sector of the economy, has been devastated by Tunisia's image abroad as a dangerous, unstable place.

Tunisians have reason to be dubious of the new government's ability to deal with these and other problems, precisely because it differs little from the old government: of the 35 posts announced, 22 were filled by personalities already in power. This won't look good in a country where even before the current political crisis faith in government was at an all-time low. According to the International Republican Institute's most recent poll, 64 percent of Tunisians were dissatisfied with their government, a number which has likely grown considerably because of the last month's events.

Also unchanged is the Constituent Assembly, the corps of representatives elected to draft the country's new constitution in 2011 but which assumed de facto legislative powers in the absence of any other body. The assembly has long overrun a self-imposed one-year deadline to finish the constitution, and doubts have been cast by constitutional law experts on its ability to finish its task within two. This might perhaps be excusable if it weren't for the assembly's lamentable record of absenteeism and tardiness.

Tunisians have a precise idea of how bad that problem is thanks to the efforts of watchdog group Al Bawsala (“the compass” in Arabic). Al Bawsala has quietly monitored the activities of the Constituent Assembly for over a year, providing plenty of fodder for critics of the institution, but failing to make a big impact in mainstream media. That changed when the organization presented its findings to a committee charged with modifying and reforming the internal regulation of the Assembly itself.

According to the report they presented to the subcommittee, the average attendance at each plenary session was 90 out of 217 representatives, and the highest attendance was just 123. When confronted with the data, some assembly members reacted with hostility and one even threatened the group with a lawsuit.

Leila Bahria, another judge and one of the few woman appointed to the new government, as under-secretary for foreign affairs, agreed that absenteeism in the Constituent Assembly was a problem, saying, “It's worrying.”

However, she felt that a more effective, reshuffled government could take some of the pressure off the Constituent Assembly and help move Tunisia towards the next phase of its democracy, something which she considered couldn't come soon enough.

“Truly, this transitional period needs to ends as soon as possible,” Ms. Bahria said.

In that sentiment, at least, she will certainly find the agreement of her fellow countrymen.

Mischa Benoit-Lavelle is an American freelance journalist based in Tunis, Tunisia. Before becoming a freelancer, he was a senior editor for Tunisia's first English-language news website, Tunisia Live. He is currently the English-language correspondent from Tunisia for the French news network France 24.

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