Tunisia: New reforms lie ahead

Tunisia’s Prime Minister and member of Nidaa Tounes, Youssef Chahed, named a new cabinet last Wednesday, replacing 13 ministers of the 27-member government. Among the new ministers he appointed three former ministers who also served under the rule of ousted President Ben Ali. Ridha Chalgoum was restored as finance minister. Lofti Braham, like Chalgoum member of the secular party Call for Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes), was named as interior minister. Taoufik Rajhi, one of Chahed’s economic advisors and member of the Islamist Ennahda Movement, was appointed to the new minister post of economic reforms.

The new cabinet was announced after several consultations with political parties and organisations last weeks. One of the partners the Prime Minister consulted was the powerful labour union UGTT which warned it would intervene as mediator if necessary. The government has the difficult task to bring Tunisia’s financial situation in line with IMF demands. Since the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts in 2011, Tunisian citizens have been protesting for better economic conditions and more equality. Although Tunisia has avoided uprisings and conflicts as seen in neighbouring countries, fiscal reforms have been neglected due to political infighting. According to Chahed, the new government will continue to "fight against terrorism, corruption, unemployment and regional inequality".

Between two camps
Chahed is under pressure to bring a stable government, to reform the pension system, and to improve social and economic conditions, thereby diminishing the tensions among Tunisian citizens. However, this is a challenging task, as the Prime Minister is standing between two camps. On the one hand, the Ennahda Movement that holds 69 seats in the 217-seat Assembly of the Representatives of the People, making it the second biggest party. Ennahda delivers four ministers in the new cabinet. The Islamist party strives for political pluralism, advocating a combination of Islamic democracy and economic liberalism. Ennahda’s support comes mainly from the countryside. On the other hand, Nidaa Tounes that became the largest party during the 2014 elections, holding 86 seats. However, after a split Nidaa Tounes holds 62 seats. The secular political party fights for individual freedoms, equality between men and women, and neutrality of mosques. Its members fear Tunisia is becoming too Islamic. Despite the fact that Nidaa Tounes has less seats than the Ennahda Movement, six members of the party were appointed to the 13 new ministerial posts.

Social challenges
The struggle between the two biggest parties shows a divided country where social and economic change has been slow. Youth unemployment is high and wages are low. Corruption is rampant. As a result of terrorist attacks, individual rights are threatened. Tunisia is forerunner compared to the rest of the Arab and Muslim world in terms of gender equality due to its 2014 Constitution, like the right for women to marry outside the Muslim faith and equal inheritance rights. At the same time, however, the representation of women in elected bodies is low and rights to work are sometimes meaningless. Resistance both inside and outside Tunisia hinders progress. Tunisia’s President and member of Nidaa Tounes Beji Caid Essebsi, a fierce advocate of equal rights for both men and women, mainly gets opposition from Ennahda. A very challenging task indeed for the Prime Minister to overcome the division between the two main parties. 

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