Tunisia’s prime minister calls for new secularist front
TUNIS – Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed called on all secularists and progressives to unite in a new movement that “restores the dreams of Tunisians and Tunisia” and could constitute a counterweight to the Islamists.
Chahed stopped short of announcing the creation of his own party as he voiced his most stinging criticism against his main rival in the secularist camp, the son of the President Beji Caid Essebsi.
Nidaa Tounes, led by Hafedh Caid Essebsi, has been spearheading a campaign to oust Chahed.
On November 17, the Tunisian parliament approved cabinet reshuffle proposed by Chahed with a vote that demonstrated a larger-than-expected backing for the prime minister. Parliamentary support stemmed essentially from the votes of Nidaa Tounes dissidents and Islamists.
“This issue over the government is over now politically and constitutionally. We went to the parliament to win support as the president had advised,” Chahed told a local television channel in an interview.
Asked by the interviewer about his “ strained relationship” with President Beji Caid Essebsi, Chahed insisted: “My relationship with the president is not strained” although it might have “changed.”
“I have all the respect to the president of the republic, who had played a big role in the democratic transition and in the political balance. So, there is no strained relationship with the president. I deal with him within the framework of the constitution and the law,” he added.
But when the interviewer gave examples, including the end of their weekly meeting at the presidential palace, to substantiate the evidence about his ”estrangement” with the president who had appointed him on the job in August 2016, Chahed said:
“I deal with the president the way a statesman would do. We have a constitution that rules such relations. It is possible that the relationship has changed but it is not strained.”
Chahed assailed Hafedh Caid Essebsi and his policies as the head of the Nidaa Tounes party.
“Everyone knows the cause of my conflict with Hafedh. Everybody knows that this gentleman has destroyed the party and he wanted to manage the state affairs like private property,” said Chahed.
“As far as I am concerned, I oppose and refuse this nihilism. I continue to refuse this in dealing with the state affairs and this is my role as head of the government,” he added.
Chahed’s criticism to the young Caid Essebsi means the feud within Nidaa Tounes ranks and over ties to the president is far from over.
”Those seeking my departure, what solutions do they have for the problems of the country like the depreciation of the value of the dinar or the diminishing purchasing power of workers?” asked Chahed.
“They want that I leave so they can grab power, free the corrupt individuals in detention and stop the war on corruption,” he answered.
It is the first time that Chahed has linked publicly his rivals in Nidaa Tounes to the corruption.
At 42, Chahed is Tunisia’s youngest prime minister in 60 years.
The anti-corruption campaign, which he launched in May of last year with the arrest of a score of businesspeople and suspected accomplices, boosted his popularity.
Even if the public enthusiasm for the fight against graft is being overshadowed by the widespread frustrations over social hardships, the results of a recent opinion poll released in November credits Chahed with the highest favourability rating among the country’s politicians.
Chahed supporters present him as the next leader of the secularist camp, with the aim of reenacting the experience of president Caid Essebsi before his election in 2014.
Hopes for stability and united secularist front were pinned on When Nidaa Tounes when it was founded by Beji Caid Essebsi in 2012 as a “modernist alternative to Ennahda”.
But the politics of the country proved to be too volatile for both hopes to materialise.
Nidaa first won the support of a broad range of constituencies, mostly women but also supporters of Tunisia’s “Destourian” movement with links to the legacy of the country’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba , trade unionists, leftists and independents, as well as ex-members of Ben Ali’s government and the now-dissolved Constitutional Democratic Rally party.
The various factions initially constituted a unified front against Islamists. But that front quickly unravelled as the Nidaa Tounes splintered over leadership issues.
“Which Nidaa party you are talking about? That party I worked within like thousands of other supporters is gone,” said Chahed in the televised interview.
”The current leadership of Nidaa do not represent the original Nidaa and its authentic project. This authentic Nidaa built by its activists and supporters who had dreamed of this project and made sacrifices for it had been replaced by the current party leadership, which is a group of persons who are only there as licence-holders,” he said alluding to the Beji Caid Essebsi’s legacy as the founder of the party.
Chahed called on “nationalist,” “democratic” and “progressive” forces as well as independents to create a movement that could replace Nidaa and stands as a counterweight to the Islamists.
“Tunisia needs a nationalist, democrat and progressive political dynamic. There are thousands and thousands of clean people with talent and competences who had withdrawn from political activity because of the current low level of discourse,” he said.
“Today there is a need to unify these forces. Tunisia needs that and I urge all nationalists, democrats, progressives, Destourians and independents to launch this dynamic and create this movement,” he added.
Chahed did not say if he would be the leader of this projected political movement although his backers call it already “a project for Chahed.” Expectations are the new Chahed-led movement could be announced as early as next January.
In an implicit gibe at the president and his son Hafedh Caid Essebsi, Chahed said any new movement must evolve in an environment that is different from that of Nidaa Tounes.
“First, there must be a break with corruption, corruption ruined the Nidaa political family. Second, there must be internal democracy to manage the party and thirdly the project must restore dream to Tunisia we all love,” he added.
Asked whether he will run for president next year, Chahed said: ”This issue does not appeal to me and I do not think about that, now.”
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.