In a bid to resolve the ongoing political crisis in Tunisia, the country’s biggest political party, Ennahda, called for a “joint dialogue” between prime minister Hichem Mechichi and president Kais Saied, Middle East Monitor reported on Monday, March 1. Ennahda has softened its stance after organizing a massive rally last Saturday in Mechichi’s support. Thousands of protesters and Ennahda supporters participated in the rally and expressed their support for the prime minister in his dispute with the president over a recent cabinet reshuffle and new ministerial appointments announced earlier this year.
In January, Mechichi appointed 11 new ministers to his cabinet. He then dismissed and replaced five more ministers in February. Saied opposed the reshuffle, accusing the new ministers of corruption and raising issues of conflict of interest. He also refused to confirm and swear in the new ministers despite the approval of the majority of the Tunisian parliament. The dispute over the cabinet reshuffle escalated following allegations that the president’s actions were motivated by the replacement of his allies in the government with Mechichi’s supporters, namely the Islamist Ennahda party and the liberal Qalb Tounes party.
The rally in support of Mechichi held in the central part of capital Tunis saw thousands chanting slogans. Parliament speaker and Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi addressed the rally and called for a joint dialogue between all sides to amicably resolve the current political crisis and end the deadlock.
However, reports of several journalists being manhandled and assaulted during the rally led the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) to issue a condemnation against the violence. Ennahda later apologized for the violence against journalists.
Several political commentators and analysts have expressed concern that the dispute within the Tunisian government could further damage the national economy. The economic crisis has been exacerbated by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The poor performing economy and absence of sound government economic policy has led to acute distress in terms of rising poverty, unemployment, inflation, and external debt. There has been a significant dip in the country’s credit rating with its GDP contracting by 8.2% in 2020. Unemployment had risen to as high as 16.2% in September last year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which also stated that unemployment was one of the primary factors leading to discontent and division in the country, especially among “low-skilled workers, women, and youth” – the main groups being affected by the economic crisis. The crisis saw continuous protests both last year and this year on the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring protests.
Tunisia’s fiscal deficit also increased to 11.5% of the GDP in 2020. The country is poised to take on a further debt of about 19.5 billion Tunisian dinars ($7.2 billion), of which $5 billion will be foreign debt. Debt repayments estimated to be around 16 billion dinars are due this year. International lenders as well as the IMF have urged the government to cut subsidies, lower the wage bill and drastically reduce government spending in order to obtain the foreign loans needed to repay debts. However, such moves by the government are vehemently opposed by the Tunisian left parties, trade unions, activists, and others due to the added economic burden and hardships they will disproportionately inflict on the middle and working class.