There’s much debate in Tunisia about the new political situation after Prime Minister Youssef Chahed announced the make up of his new cabinet on November 6th. Alliances now appear radically different from what had prevailed since the autumn elections in 2014 when a coalition government was formed between the Islamic Ennahdha Party and the secularist Nidaa Tounes.
In the new government there is no portfolio for Nidaa Tounes, which refused to participate from the outset in reshuffle negotiations. By contrast, Ennahdha now has five ministers and four ministers of state, an increase on their previous representation of four ministers and three ministers of state.
Noureddine Ben Ticha, the political adviser to President Caid Essebsi, has declared that this government has become the government of the Ennahda, and unrepresentative of the results of the 2014 elections. He said in a press statement, "This is a government formed by the Ennahda Party. The president of the republic, Beji Caid Essebsi, was not consulted about this cabinet reshuffle, which he knew about only through the media. Chahed sent a list of the ministerial reshuffle, while the formation of the new government is in contrast to the previous one."
For its part, Nidaa Tounes accused Youssef Chahed of a coup against the constitution. The Secretary-General of the party, Slim Riahi, told a news conference that the Prime Minister had accelerated the reshuffle and imposed a fait accompli on his party. He said the Prime Minister had announced the reshuffle without consulting the president of the republic. "The whole procedure was wrong and contrary to the rules."
It appears that the cabinet reshuffle has taken Youssef Chahed beyond the point of no return in relation to President Caid Essebsi, and strengthened his relationship with the Islamic Ennahdha, which in turn benefits by raising its share of ministerial portfolios and consolidating its presence in power. Ennahdha was quick to welcome the government reshuffle, and said it would vote to give the new cabinet a vote of confidence in parliament. Chahed today has the support of about 120 seats in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People -- from Ennahdha, the Democratic Alliance, and Machrouu Tounes -- while he needs no more than 109 votes to win the vote.
But President Caid Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes still have room for manoeuvre in the coming days. Since the president has a say in appointments to the foreign and defense ministries, the resignation of one of these two ministers could complicate the relationship between Chahed and his allies. The alliance of Chahed and Ennahdha deputies remains fragile and liable to collapse, due to its non-ideological nature based on temporary interests rather than a strategic programme.
The problems of Chahed and his government are not limited to unstable political alliances, but encompass the social situation in the whole country, which is suffering under a stifling financial crisis. The country's strongest trade union, the General Labour Union, continues to demonstrate opposition and has strong reservations about Chahed and his government's policy, which it considers hostile to the poor and middle classes through privatisation policies, which the PM wants to extend to the public sector.
The privatisation programme and the weakening of trade unions are perhaps the most important reasons why Ennahdha supports Chahed. A spokesman for Ennahdha, Imad al-Khmiri, said that his Party "hoped the new government would respond to our requests for economic and social reforms". The Islamists want to put an end to the strength of trade unionism, because if they come to power again the unions would be their only adversary on the ground, especially given the fragmentation of secular political forces, their organisational weakness, and their lack of political influence among the masses.
But it seems that Chahed and the Ennahda party will be in conflict with the General Labour Union; the lessons of past experience demonstrate the catastrophic consequences for Tunisian governments during their battles with trade unionism in the 1970s and 1980s. This opposition will be supported by a wide range of anti-Islamist forces and parties, from Nidaa Tounes on the right to the Popular Front on the left.