Seeking a leader

Tunisia’s Saïed gambles on appointing Fakhfakh to head the government

By Frida Dahmani

Posted on January 24, 2020 10:15

Without a parliamentary majority, Tunisia’s President Saïed looks like he might have a hard time forming a government.

After the earlier proposal for Habib Jemli to lead the government was rejected on 10 January by the Assembly of People’s Representatives (APR), the President of the republic, in accordance with the constitution, which gives him ten days to appoint a new head of government, relaunched the competition between the parties for a new executive.

Saïed, a native of Carthage and former teacher, cut to the chase by asking the various factions in the assembly to provide a written list of candidates and their qualities. By avoiding the palaver and endless discussions, he could devote himself to examining the files of 21 applicants and choosing a competent person with the necessary savvy to build a political consensus.

Leaving the speculation and comments to the social networks and the media, he announced the appointment of Elyes Fakhfakh, an engineer by training, in a simple communiqué from the presidency. Fakhfakh has until 20 February to assemble a team and solicit the confidence of the ARP.

A mixed bag

Up against economists Fadhel Abdelkafi and Hakim Ben Hammouda, as well as the state clerk Ridha Ben Mosbah, Fakhfakh was not seen as a favourite by the pundits of the Kasbah. But Saïed finally chose a leader from Ettakatol, a social-democratic party that disappeared from the radar with the fall of the government troika in 2013.

Fakhfakh, a former tourism minister and had a short stint as Minister of Finance (2012 – 2013), was proposed by Tahya Tounes and supported by the Democratic Current, though there is no affinity between them. The well-known 47-year-old company manager, a native of Tunis and from Sfax, was a candidate in the 2019 presidential election, receiving only 0.34% of the vote. His party did not win a single seat in the legislative elections. Such a mixed record, said Mohamed Bennour, a former leader of Ettakatol, “hardly justifies the choice of Kaïs Saïed”.

Tunisians are perplexed. What does the appointment mean? For the most pessimistic, it serves Saïed’s project to install a model of participatory democracy and reapportioning of the centralised power structure. The reasoning goes that without broad partisan support, Fakhfakh, would not gain the confidence of the assembly, which would then allow the President to dissolve the assembly and call for early legislative elections. This hypothesis is of sufficient concern to the current deputies, who would prefer to support the Fakhfakh executive rather than lose their seats.

Others are unconvinced and believe Saïed’s decision is anti-democratic. “The appointment of Fakhfakh does not reflect the orientations of the elected parties,” argued Seifeddine Makhlouf, leader of the Al Karama parliamentary group.

Mission impossible

Partisan or personal calculations, however, will soon be overtaken by Tunisia’s extremely precarious situation. Without a majority in parliament, Fakhfakh risks being held hostage by the political factions and bearing the brunt of the tensions between Carthage and the Bardo hemicycle. The new chief executive has one month, renewable once, to present his team to the ARP and convince the deputies.

“In absolute terms, the mission is impossible unless there is a lot of lobbying work. For the moment, he has only 37 votes of support [from Tahya Tounes and the Democratic Current],” noted a member of the National Coalition. He also mentions the compatibility of Ettakatol with political Islam, as well as the liabilities of Elyes Fakhfakh, and is concerned the cumulative failures of the government troika in 2012 will resurge. That troubled time led to the Bardo sit-in in August 2013 and the fall of the government.

Six years later, the Tunisians have not forgotten anything and would prefer to bet on a sound future. As the social networks reported:

“We were expecting a recognised, competent individual, that reassures, consolidates, and sends a positive message”

“A profile that gets the machine up and running again quickly, will he Fakhfakh] have the stature?”

But above all they are curious about Elyes Fakhfakh’s programme. He will have to refine his initial statements and involve the parties in his executive to benefit from any room to manoeuvre. There are other concerns. The constitution, in the event of rejection of the composition proposed by Fakhfakh, specifies that the President could dissolve the Assembly, but it remains silent on other possible eventualities.

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