Tunisia – What would PM Essid's departure mean?

by François Conradie, Head of Research, NKC African Economics 0

We are hearing rumours from more and more sources that Prime Minister Habib Essid is on his way out.

His performance as head of government has never really been to the satisfaction of Tunisians broadly speaking: the soft-spoken 67-year-old veteran of the civil service is blamed for laxity in responding to the terrorism threat, and of failing to do anything to revive the lacklustre economy. In our view the former accusation is less fair than the latter.

Most recently there have been indications that the two main power-brokers in Tunisia, President Beji Caid Essebsi and Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi, are preparing to dismiss the prime minister. We have been hearing rumours of this for a while, but on Tuesday, May 17, La Maghreb ran an editorial on the subject alleging that plans were in place for Mr Essid to leave before Ramadan, which starts in the first week of June.

Caid Essebsi nominated Essid in January 2015 in consultation with the liberals of Afek Tounes and the Free Patriotic Union (UPL), before the president and his party, Nidaa Tounes, undertook a controversial change of focus and negotiated the rest of the cabinet appointments with the Islamists of Ennahdha, Mr Ghannouchi’s party.

Nidaa Tounes has since split, and its more leftist members, especially Ridha Belhaj, have left the party. Mr Essid has accordingly lost much of his political capital within the informal Nidaa Tounes-Ennahdha coalition in government.

The Nidaa Tounes split has strengthened Ennahdha, which is preparing to hold its national congress from May 20. Certainly not coincidentally, Mr Caid Essebsi travelled to Qatar on Tuesday, May 17, to meet with Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. Qatar is the main worldwide sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) from which Ennahdha was born.

We cannot evaluate the credibility of the rumours, but we can think about what could happen if Essid does leave. In practice, he can leave office either by resigning or else in response to a vote of no confidence. We do not think he will decline if he is asked to resign.

His resignation can be expected to result in comments about Ennahdha’s increasing influence, which many have been fearing since Nidaa Tounes split, and in response to which the Islamists have been careful not to look too assertive.

We expect this process of what France’s National Front calls ‘de-diabolisation’ to continue at the Ennadha congress, with further efforts to make Ennahdha look less like an MB front and more like other political parties. The new prime minister will probably also be superficially unobjectionable, more likely to come from Nidaa Tounes than from Ennahdha. Still, it is certain that Ennahdha is gaining in influence and that the MB will have a major say in the nomination.

This is not what Tunisians voted for in 2014, and will, again, tend to introduce tensions into the political and social space.

*François Conradie, Head of Research, NKC African Economics