Tunisia’s Ennahda Seeks to Name Replacement for Premier

As Tunisia’s leaders seek consensus on a new prime minister after Hamadi Jbeli quit, they’re also battling to stop the country sliding deeper into a political crisis with echoes of the one engulfing Egypt.

Jbeli, secretary-general of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, resigned on Feb. 19 after failing to form a technocratic government to ease tensions after the assassination of an opposition leader earlier this month. Ennahda, which holds the most seats in parliament and opposed Jbeli’s plan, said yesterday it favored re-nominating him.

The impasse underscored the continued threats to stability in Tunisia, often hailed as a model for other Arab transitions, two years after the uprising that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. It also offered parallels with challenges confronting other nations, especially Egypt, that followed in its footsteps during the so-called Arab Spring.

“It’s been, like we’ve seen in Egypt as well, a total lack of progress in a place where people don’t have much patience,” Said Hirsh, a London-based independent Mideast economist, said by phone. “It’s better that Jbeli has resigned because he’s making it seem like there’s something democratic going on.”

Jbeli said he stepped down to fulfill a pledge he made if he couldn’t form a new cabinet. Ennahda is committed to re-nominating Jbeli, although it has prepared a list of alternative candidates should he reject the job, party spokesman Abdul-Hamid Jelassi said by phone.

Leader Assassinated

Ennahda’s chief, Rashid Ghannouchi, met with President Moncef Marzouki and told reporters that negotiations are ongoing. He said a new cabinet must be completed by the end of the week, and repeated a call for a government combining party figures with “competent” individuals from outside politics, in a nod to the technocrat idea. Jbeli has rejected that formula.

Unrest surfaced during the December anniversary of Tunisia’s uprising and turned into violent protests after the killing of Democratic Patriots leader Chukri Beleid on Feb. 6. It prompted Standard & Poor’s to cut Tunisia’s credit rating on Feb. 19 for the third time since 2011.

The divisions hurt the government’s ability to “take corrective measures against a weakening economic and financial backdrop,” S&P analyst Patrick Raleigh wrote.

Tunisia’s economy is struggling to recover from its first contraction in at least two decades. The budget deficit widened to a 12-year high of 6.4 percent of output last year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

‘Further Tremors’

Some opposition politicians backed Jbeli to stay on. Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, a top official with the Jumhuri, or Republican, party, said that would “spare the country further tremors.”

Tunisia’s political crisis has parallels with the situation in Egypt, another North African nation now led by moderate Islamists who swept into power with promises of social justice that have not translated into better living standards.

While in Tunisia there was the appearance of political consensus-building, Egypt’s case is “a lot worse,” said Hirsh. Its Muslim Brotherhood leaders “just ploughed ahead, hoping things would change with them. But things got worse.”

Mursi Rebuff

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi has rebuffed opposition calls for a national unity government, focusing instead on pushing ahead with parliamentary elections. No date has been set for the vote, and in a potential setback for the president the country’s top court this week sent back to parliament a draft election law, saying some clauses were unconstitutional.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which fielded Mursi for office, is hoping for a clean sweep in the vote even as mounting daily protests reflect disaffection among its secular and youth activist opponents. Tensions with other Islamist groups have also surfaced, leading Mursi to accept an offer by the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya religious group to mediate.

Egypt’s economy is growing at the slowest pace in two decades and foreign currency reserves have plunged. Protests in Port Said effectively shut down the Suez Canal city for a fourth day yesterday. The canal’s container terminal said it suspended its night shift, warning that traffic may shrink.

Demonstrators have accused Mursi of failing to end abuses by police, one of the grievances behind the revolt against Hosni Mubarak.

Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei yesterday urged an investigation of the alleged torture of a man by police during a rally last month. “Back to dark ages of brutality,” ElBaradei said of the case on his Twitter account.

Ennahda Blamed

Tunisia had largely avoided the repeated waves of protests that stymied Egypt’s progress. That may have changed with Beleid’s killing, which sparked thousands-strong street protests against Ennahda and the government.

Beleid’s widow has blamed Ennahda for his death. Opposition politicians have called for the breakup of pro-government militias blamed for violence in recent months.

Chebbi, whose party is secular, said the key to forming a new government is to sideline Ennahda from the so-called sovereign ministries, particularly the Interior Ministry, which controls the police.

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