Tunisia’s New Cabinet Keeps Old Security Chiefs in Place

  • Country faces pressure to cut unemployment, boost growth
  • New government could fall under the shadow of powerful Essibsi

Tunisia’s prime minister-designate unveiled a new cabinet that retained the previous government’s security stewards while bringing in new faces to try to revive the economy and give the ruling coalition a broader base.

Youssef Al-Shahed kept seven key ministers, including defense and interior, from predecessor Habib Essid’s government, providing continuity -- some said stagnation -- as the country faces continued fallout from last year’s Islamic militant attacks and spillover from the war in neighboring Libya. Lamia Zribi, a former business development official, will be the nation’s first woman finance minister.

The appointments, announced late Saturday, followed more than two weeks of consultations since parliament dismissed Essid over the country’s weak economic performance. They included an unprecedented number of women and young officials, and gave representation to six political parties, including the dominant Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, to try to shore up the new government’s mandate to act.

The issue is not “changing ministers, but the quality of the policies to be adopted in the economic and social fronts,” and to rebuild trust with the unions, political analyst Salaheddine Jourchi said Sunday. Al-Shahed, he added, did well by drawing in smaller parties.

Although Tunisia has avoided much of the unrest that hit neighboring countries since it sparked upheavals in Arab nations in 2011, its embrace of democratic policies hasn’t brought it economic growth. Unemployment is 15 percent, and even higher among young people, as economic reforms proceed slowly and tourism and foreign investment suffer from Islamic militant attacks that killed dozens last year.

Al-Shahed, at a news conference late Saturday, said his government’s priorities would be fighting terrorism and corruption, economic development, and the empowerment of women and youth.

Six Women

He named six women to the 26-member cabinet, including Zribi, 55, who worked in the Ministry for Development and Investment and as a director of Tunisia’s state bank for small and medium enterprises. Five of the new cabinet members are under the age of 35.

The priorities reflect issues the International Monetary Fund wants Tunisia to address in return for the $2.9 billion loan approved in June. Under a five-year economic reform program that runs to 2020, Tunisia has pledged to bring down public debt to 50 percent of gross domestic product compared to an estimated 54 percent in 2015, according to the fund. It’s also promised to offer greater exchange rate flexibility, restructure public banks to improve financial sector intermediation, reduce energy subsidies, implement a more progressive tax system and reform state-owned bodies.

The ability to push through this overhaul hinges on the government’s ability to transcend partisan politics that have been at least partly to blame for earlier failures.

Tunisia’s economy grew 1.4 percent in the second quarter of 2016 compared to 1.1 percent in the same period a year ago, according to government figures. The IMF projects Tunisia’s GDP will grow 2 percent in 2016 and 3 percent the following year, with the implementation of the reform program.

Critics of Essid’s government have accused Al-Shahed’s Nidaa Tounes party and the moderate Islamist Ennahda of worrying more about retaining power than effecting change.

Still, Al-Shahed’s focus on bringing in new faces and bridging party divides could, at the same time, lead to the same kind of paralysis that made Essid’s government ineffective,   said Samir ben Omar, a senior member of the opposition Congress of the Republic party.

This is a government “of accommodation” that “lacks competencies,” ben Omar said.

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