Tunisian MPs in dispute over Qatar air transport agreement

Tunisian MPs argue that opening Tunisian airspace to Qatar would be harmful to the national security of the country, accuse Ennahda party of using illegal tactics to get draft law passed.

TUNIS - Tunisia's parliament resumed on Wednesday, a day after Speaker Rached Ghannouchi adjourned a plenary session due to a dispute between lawmakers over a draft-law on selling shares of flag-carrier Tunisair, which is suffering from a financial crisis, to Qatar Airways.

The air transport services agreement between Tunisia and Qatar was signed on March 2, 2019, but has not yet been ratified by parliament. Tuesday's session descended into chaos as a number of MPs refused to pass the draft resolution, arguing that ratifying it would pose a threat to Tunisia's national security.

The head of Tunisia's Free Destourian Party (PDL), Abir Moussi, demanded that the Islamist party Ennahda, considered a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate that is close to pro-Islamist Qatar, clarify its position on the draft law that they say would open Tunisian airspace to Doha under "loose and unclear" terms that would give Qatar the opportunity to exploit mutual security agreements for its own political purposes.

The PDL said on Tuesday that it had filed a judicial complaint with the Tunisian Administrative Court against Parliament Speaker and Ennahda head Ghannouchi over an "abuse of authority" due to what they alleged were illicit attempts to pass the deal with Qatar the previous week.

It accused Ennahda of seeking to pass the controversial law under the cover of other draft resolutions on agreements with other countries. It said Ennahda had then sought to stall voting on the draft legislation, fearing that it would not pass due to opposition from lawmakers, by requesting that the session be adjourned for consultation then justifying a postponement of the vote due to the lack of a parliamentary quorum.

MPs say they consider Ennahda's move an attempt to "circumvent the law and contradict the procedure of parliament".

PDL head Moussi has alleged that the agreement with Qatar contains imprecise language open to interpretation that represents "planted mines" which threaten Tunisia's national security. She said the agreement would allow Qatar to exploit Tunisia's economic fragility at a time when the region is experiencing serious unrest.

The session on Tuesday eventually descended into a war of words, as deputy head of the United Democratic Nationalist Party Manji al-Rahawi claimed Ghannouchi sought to approve agreements with Qatar without the consent of parliament, accusing Ennahda of "lying" and "conspiring to pass the draft agreement with Qatar."

"Stop lying," he shouted at the Speaker. Ghannouchi snapped back, saying the deputy’s remarks were "despicable."  Following the exchange, Ennahda MP Noureddine Bhiri defended Ghannouchi by calling Rahawi "the biggest liar that Tunisia ever knew."

Samia Abbou, a representative of the Democratic Current, told Ghannouchi that "Parliament is not the Shura of Ennahda, but a legislative council and the center of the rule of law," calling on Ghannouchi to provide legal clarification for what happened during the previous week's session.

The war of words eventually prompted the parliamentary speaker to end the session on Tuesday.

The agreement with Qatar has also faced opposition from the general transport union under the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), which on Wednesday called on authorities to restructure Tunisair before seeking to apply any international agreements.

Tunisair CEO Ilyes Mnakbi has also stressed the need to rehabilitate the airline before starting to apply international agreements including the Open Skies convention with the European Union.