Tunisia’s new PM must heal country’s fractures or face costly new election

President Kais Saied has given country’s Minister of Interior, Hichem Mechichi, job of forming new government

(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 27, 2020 Tunisian Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi takes the oath of office during the country's new government swearing-in ceremony at the Carthage Palace outside the capital Tunis, on February 27, 2020, following a confidence vote by parliament.  Hichem Mechichi, who until now has served as Tunisia's interior minister, has been appointed to form the next government, the president's office said on July 25, 2020. The 46-year-old lawyer succeeds Elyes Fakhfakh, who resigned earlier this month -- but Mechichi was not one of the names proposed by the ruling political parties to President Kais Saied. / AFP / FETHI BELAID
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Tunisian President Kais Saied has given the country’s Interior Minister, Hichem Mechichi the task of forming a government after the resignation of his predecessor over accusations of corruption.

Mr Mechichi has a month to form a government capable of commanding a majority across the fractured Parliament, or face a new round of potentially costly legislative elections.

The task ahead is significant. Divisions within the Parliament appear to be widening while economic and social conditions are deteriorating.

His predecessor Elyes Fakhfakh’s government lasted only five months and on Thursday there was a vote of censure against the Speaker, Rached Ghannouchi, who leads the moderate Islamist Ennahda party.

To make Mr Mechichi's job even more challenging, Tunisia has a potential second wave of coronavirus looming.

The IMF in April predicted that Tunisia's economy would shrink by up to 4.3 per cent this year, in the sharpest contraction since independence in 1956.

Unemployment, a long-standing driver of social unrest, is also expected to increase because of the coronavirus pandemic and the loss of this year’s tourist season.

Many were surprised by the choice of Mr Mechichi, with none of the ruling parties including him on their lists of proposed candidates.

"What we are seeing is the formation of a 'president's government' – Kais Saied's government as opposed to a parliamentary one," Sharan Grewal, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in the US, told The National.

“The constitution says that Saied is supposed to consult with the parties in Parliament but it does not specify whether he has to choose someone nominated by a party.

"So Saied is exploiting that ambiguity to put forth his own candidate.”

Few parties want to face with the prospect of more elections in a period of parliamentary unpopularity, Mr Grewal said.

“The other dynamic at play here is that no party wants to take the lead right now," he said.

"The economic forecast is dire and there is little chance that any government will succeed."

In a marked contrast to many of his contemporaries, Mr Mechichi was born to working-class parents in north-western Tunisia.

After training as a lawyer, including a stint studying in Strasbourg, Mr he established himself as one of the country’s early specialists in anti-corruption.

In more recent years, Mr Mechichi served as chief of staff to the ministries of transport, health and social affairs. before being appointed legal counsellor to the president in February 2020.

He was named Interior Minister several days later.

Reactions to Mr Mechichi’s designation appeared divided.

Outside Tunis’s historic medina, shopkeeper Amor Laabidi, 51, appeared less than reassured by Mr Mechichi's appointment.

“I don't know anything," Mr Laabidi, said. "He's been in the ministry for two months now but he’s done nothing. I see nothing.

"I still don't feel safe when I walk in the streets at night. I don't feel safe in my own neighbourhood. I was born here.”

Mr Laabidi was dismissive of Mr Mechichi's chances of forming a government.

“I wish the Parliament would be abolished,” he said.

Malak Mhamdi, 23, a student from the southern port city of Gabes, was more optimistic.

“I don’t know the guy but given the fact that he had been the president’s adviser, he can manage to form a government," Ms Mhamdi said. "I think he has the credibility."

But she said she doubted his ability to handle the country's finances.

“But he doesn’t have knowledge about the economy, the one field that needs revival in Tunisia,” Ms Mhamdi said. "So that can be a huge negative.”