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January 23, 2014 Special Dispatch No. 5614

Tunisians’ Perspective On Their New Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa

January 23, 2014
North Africa, Tunisia | Special Dispatch No. 5614

The appointment of Mehdi Jomaa, Tunisia's new caretaker prime minister, is meant to guide the country out of political deadlock, as Tunisian political life has been paralyzed since the July 25, 2013 assassination of MP Mohamed Brahmi,[1] founder and former leader of the left-wing People's Movement. Because of this paralysis, on September 17, 2013, the "Quartet" of the four main civil society organizations – the Tunisian General Union of Workers (UGTT); the Tunisian Industry, Trade and Handicrafts Union (Utica); the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LTDH); and the Bar Association – presented to the various parties a roadmap setting out the beginning of a national dialogue process.[2] As a precondition for launching a national diaalogue, the Quartet suggested that El-Nahdha Prime Minister Ali Larayedh's government resign and that it be replaced by a small team of skilled technocrats, and that the new constitution, currently being drafted by the National Constituent Assembly (ANC),[3] be finalized. The resignation of the Larayedh government would also implicitly mean the end of the ruling "Troika" coalition comprising the Islamist party El-Nahdha, the Congress for the Republic Party (CPR), and Ettakatol, which had held power since the October 2011 election for a constituent assembly.


Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa. (Image source: Business News, Tunisia, December 15, 2013)

On December 14, 2013, in the framework of the national dialogue, Jomaa, 51, was chosen as the new prime minister. He is an engineer with a business background, who had from 1988 worked in the management of Hutchinson Aerospace until he joined the cabinet of El-Nahdha Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh's cabinet as minister of industry. Despite his having been elected within the national dialogue, nine cast their ballots for Jomaa, of a total of 18 present and 11 voting members. While 21 parties had been included in the national dialogue, two were absent at the vote, and the Al-Joumhouri (Republican) party withdrew that evening. Before his selection, other smaller parties had criticized the process, because they were not included in the discussions, and members of the Popular Front opposition coalition expressed disappointment that the appointee had been a member of the Larayedh government.

On January 10, 2014, Jomaa was officially sworn in as caretaker prime minister to oversee the government ahead of new elections. In a statement to media at the end of his meeting with the caretaker President of the Republic Moncef Marzouki, Jomaa said that the "new government will be independent and will include national competencies characterized by their neutrality and impartiality."[4] Nevertheless, Jomaa's appointment was criticized by several parties of the opposition. On January 9, interim PM Ali Larayedh submitted his resignation to caretaker President Marzouki, in the second resignation of a government led by an El-Nahdha member, following the departure of El-Nahdha secretary-general and former prime minister Hamadi Jebali against the backdrop of the assassination of Tunisian political leader Chokri Belaid.[5]

Jomaa's appointment was criticized by the opposition, which saw it as a continuation of the old government, since he had been part of it. Major critics included the secularist party Nidaa Tounes (founded by former prime minister Beji Caid el Sebsi after the post-revolution 2011 elections), Al-Joumhouri, and the National Salvation Front, which includes the Union for Tunisia and Popular Front coalitions and civil society organizations. According to Nidaa Tounes executive bureau president Ridha Belhaj, Jomaa was a recycling of the old government.[6] However, in a December 25 interview with the Lebanese TV channel Al-Mayadeen, Nidaa Tounes member Abdelaziz Kotti[7] declared that his party would support Jomaa as long as he stood by the road map. The Al-Jomhouri party also indicated that it could not accept the fact that Jomaa had been a minister in the Laarayedh government.[8] Communist political leader Hamma Hammami, head of the Tunisian workers party and spokesman for the Popular Front coalition, had not voted for Jomaa, as he also considered him to represent the Laarayedh government.[9] However, other opposition members, as well as the democratic alliance, felt that in Tunisia's critical situation, all options must be considered. The democratic alliance did not vote for Jomaa, but feels that at this point it is better to support him, rather than having anarchy.[10] However, the opposition parties will monitor him closely, because he has yet to prove to them that he is fully politically independent.

For his part, it was the view of El-Nahdha leader Rachid Ghannouchi, according to a report in the Saudi London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat,[11] that although his party was no longer in government, it had not left power. The report stated: "Responding to claims that Laarayedh's resignation was a blow to El-Nahdha and a victory for [its] opponents, he pointed to El-Nahdha's strong presence in the country's Constituent Assembly as evidence of that ongoing power. El-Nahda is the largest bloc in Tunisia's Constituent Assembly, which is functioning as the country's parliament, having 89 of a total 217 seats."

The following are excerpts of an article titled "Saying 'No' to Mehdi Jomaa: Bad Faith or Common Sense?"[12] by Raouf Ben Hédi, published December 15, 2013 in the Tunisian media outlet Business News. The article describes the general feeling of the Tunisian opposition following Mehdi Jomaa's appointment.

"Saying 'No' To Mehdi Jomaa: Bad Faith Or Common Sense?"

"After Months Of Discussions And Tergiversation, The National Dialogue [In Tunisia] Has Given Birth To A New Head Of Government... Mehdi Jomaa"

"After months of discussions and tergiversation, the national dialogue [in Tunisia] has given birth to a new head of government. It was a Cesarean delivery and the newborn baby will be very closely monitored. Mehdi Jomaa – that is his name – will have to make great leaps forward, provide security to the country, and ensure that [next] elections will be free and transparent. [The Islamist party] El-Nahdha, [the social democratic political party founded by National Constituent Assembly President Mustapha Ben Jafar] Ettakatol, and the Quartet [Union of Workers (UGTT); the Tunisian Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts Union (Utica); the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LTDH); and the Bar Association] are applauding. The opposition is outraged. Tunisia has a new head of government, but unanimity was not reached. The pressure will diminish, but the crisis will continue.

"[Mehdi Jomaa] is a technocrat; he doesn't belong to El-Nahdha and he has no ambitions for the next elections. This man, in his fifties, appears to be the perfect candidate for the post of head of government in a country, Tunisia, which has been in a deep political crisis for the past year or so. However, in spite of all his qualities, no consensus was reached about Mehdi Jomaa. The opposition, once again united under the banner of the Salvation Front, said 'no' to this last-minute candidate pulled out of the hat of the Ennahdha-Ettakatol pair. Is this a 'no' in principle, reflecting ordinary bad faith, or is this a motivated 'no,' reflecting a concern for the future?"

"Nidaa Tounes And Al-Joumhouri... Left The Room Of Dialogue, Slamming The Door; [Al-Joumhouri Spokesman] Iyad Dahmani Said That 'It Is Unconceivable To Appoint A Minister Belonging To A Government That Is No Longer Wanted By Anybody And That Has Failed'"

"Mehdi Jomaa has been minister of industry for the past nine months, and was previously the director of Hutchison, at Aerospace, a branch of the French group Total, partner of the largest construction firms. Fifty-one years old, originally from the Sahel region (from Mahdia [provincial center north of Sfax]), Mr. Jomaa is an engineer who graduated from ENIT [École nationale d'ingénieurs de Tunis, Tunis' national school of engineers] (1988) and who holds a DEA (diploma of advanced studies) in mechanics, structural calculation and modeling.

"In theory, nothing suggested that he was going to hold a post of such high responsibility. As soon as his name was revealed, the opposition reacted. Surprisingly, Nidaa Tounes and Al-Joumhouri, which had been at odds during the whole week, adopted a common stance and left the room of dialogue, slamming the door. In his declaration to Business News, [Al-Joumhouri spokesman] Iyad Dahmani said that 'it is unconceivable to appoint a minister belonging to a government that is no longer wanted by anybody and that has failed.'

"Issam Chebbi, of Al-Joumhouri, has problems in accepting this 'forced step.' After having stubbornly defended, for weeks, the candidacy of 80-year-old Ahmed Mestiri,[13] he points out that the rejection of Mehdi Jomaa reflects 'his party's refusal to be the false witness of a faked solution on the pretext that the national dialogue had to succeed, although that might mean the failure of the democratic transition.' This same line of thought is followed by Noureddine Ben Ticha and by the great majority of Nida Tounes militants. The position of the other partners of the UPT [the opposition political coalition Union for Tunisia] and of the National Salvation Front is not far from this. They refuse to take part in a masquerade vote aimed at designating the new leader."

"The Quartet... Can Breathe A Sigh Of Relief; The National Dialogue, Which Was Started Months Ago, Has Apparently Not Failed; Rached Ghannouchi Is Applauding, The Left Is Outraged"

"In the end, Mehdi Jomaa was elected, with nine votes in favor out of a total attendance of 18 and with 11 members actually participating in the vote. The Quartet... can breathe a sigh of relief. The national dialogue, which was started months ago, has apparently not failed. Rached Ghannouchi is applauding, the left is outraged, and one part of the opposition (in particular the Democratic Alliance) is launching a call to put an end to this never-ending stalemate situation.

"Social networks are boiling over. While awaiting the official reactions of the leaders, opinions are quite divergent. Anonymous FB pages close to the left are posting texts and images explaining that Mehdi Jomaa is in fact the brother of Ghazi Jomaa, chief of staff of former foreign minister Rafik Abdessalem who is also the son-in-law of Rached Ghannouchi. He is also [presented as] the brother of Wahbi Jomaa, member of the Ettakatol bureau. [According to these rumors,] he is both the son-in-law of Mohamed Ben Salem (senior official of El-Nahdha and minister of Agriculture) and the brother-in-law of Slim Ben Hmidene (senior official of CPR and minister of the State Domains). These family relations were confirmed by Saida Garrach, human rights activist and Nida Tounes member.

"Journalist Om Zied [Neziha Rejiba, human rights activist and former CPR member] reiterates that Mehdi Jomaa has been an El-Nahdha activist ever since he was a student at the School of Engineering and, in her opinion, this is enough to discredit him.

"Nidaa [Tounes] militant Karim Baklouti Barketallah (formerly of Joumhouri and Ettakatol), goes even further: 'El-Nahdha showed us how they can legalize what is illegal by appointing a minister of their criticized government to lead the new government and creating a Troika III, with the support of a worn-out quartet and under great pressure... From Mestiri to Jomaa (a real joker), El-Nahdha gave [us] a real lesson in warfare strategy. We cannot trust them. They have managed to breach our wall, but not to break it. Let's take a cold shower and keep on going!'

"Journalist and writer Mehdi Kattou gives an ironic analysis: 'So, we are happy to see at the head of the government the person who was the main one responsible for the 50% drop in phosphate production? The person who tripled the number of employees of that enterprise? The person who was the instigator and the architect of the shale gas exploration activity?! In terms of meritocracy, we are really strong!"

"Taieb Laaguili, of the IRVA association [the provisional committee to reveal the truth behind the assassination of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, known by its French acronym IRVA], hands down a verdict without appeal: 'Game over for the opposition, for the martyrs of the revolution, for the wounded of the revolution, for the country. El-Nahdha will again be the winner of the next elections. What a waste!'"

"Several Militants Remain Silent – They Are Undecided About The Stance To Be Taken; After All, Mehdi Jomaa Is Not 'Old,' And There Is No Valid Reason For Rejecting Him"

"These categorical rejections from within the left are not shared by everybody. Several militants remain silent. They are undecided about the stance to be taken. After all, Mehdi Jomaa is not 'old,' and there is no valid reason for rejecting him. He has the capabilities to lead the country up to the next elections, and deserves, despite any other consideration, the benefit of the doubt...

"This pragmatism is reflected in the considerations of Khaled Abdeljaoued, a militant [of the center left] El-Massar party: 'Look at those who are gesticulating and spreading lies about Mehdi Jomaa... Look very closely at what is going on! Besides, our next head of the government is not at all close to the big lobbies which are sharing our country as though it were a cake. He perhaps belongs to El-Nahdha (but it is not proven), but he is not a buddy of the rotten branch! He perhaps belongs to Ettakatol (but it is not proven), but is not a buddy of their dealer (meaning Khayam Turki [born in France, son of a diplomat, who directed Ettakatol's 2011 electoral campaign])... He perhaps belongs to CPR, but he is not a close friend of their network engineer (meaning Nasr Ali Chakroun [Tunisian millionaire, very close to Tunisian President Marzouki]). In any case he is not a friend of... Rached Ghannouchi..."

"[Tunisian Entrepreneur And Activist] Khaled Abdeljaoued's Message To His Leftist Friends...: 'Stop Grumbling And Unite'"

"[Tunisian entrepreneur and activist] Khaled Abdeljaoued's message to his leftist friends could not have been clearer: 'The transition process keeps on going... Mehdi Jomaa is not the best to lead the government under the circumstances. I would have preferred somebody else... However he is not the worst among the 'proposed list.' In clear terms: 'Stop grumbling and unite. The struggle continues'..."

Endnotes:

[1] MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1035, Political Crisis in Tunisia, November 14, 2013

[2] MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1035, Political Crisis in Tunisia, November 14, 2013.

[3] The National Constituent Assembly is the body in charge of devising a new Tunisian constitution for the era after the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

[4] TAP (Tunisia), January 10, 2014.

[6] Tunis Numerique, December 15, 2013.

[7] Youtube.com/watch?v=gSQbsGPT2tM.

[8] Tunis Numerique, December 15, 2013.

[9] Tunis Numerique, December 15, 2013.

[10] Leaders (Tunisia), December 16, 2013.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 10, 2014.

[12] Image source: Business News (Tunisia), December 15, 2013.

[13] Ahmed Mestiri is a politician and lawyer born in La Marsa on July 2, 1925. An early leader in the Tunisian Independence Movement, he was a member of the Liberal Constitutional Party (commonly called Destour Party) that was founded in 1920. As a young man, Mestiri studied law in French Colonial Algiers from 1944-1948, and continued his studies in Paris where he graduated. Source: Tunisia Live (Tunisia), November 2, 2013.

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