Tunisia PM chosen to pull country out of spiral

Tunisian engineer who a year ago, was running a successful international business from Paris, appointed to steer country through elections intended to cement democracy.

A year ago, Mehdi Jomaa was making high-tech aerospace components designed to take the danger and discomfort out of flying. Fethi Belaid / AFP
Powered by automated translation

TUNIS // A year ago, Mehdi Jomaa was running a successful international business from Paris, making high-tech aerospace components designed to take the danger and discomfort out of flying.

Now that the Tunisian engineer has been named his country’s caretaker prime minister, he may need the skills of a career in safety seals and shock absorption to keep the nation that launched the Arab Spring from shaking itself apart before he can steer it through elections intended to cement democracy.

Mr Jomaa’s nomination on December 14 came only after months of bitter haggling and still lacks the support of key secularist opponents to the Islamists of Ennahda, the biggest party in parliament which has led interim administrations for two years.

Called home to be industry minister in March when Ennahda brought technocrats into a new government in a bid to ease tensions after militants were accused of the killing of a secular leader, Mr Jomaa is now trying to form a cabinet that can keep the peace and run a legislative election to be held next year once a much-delayed new constitution has been agreed.

“Poisoned Gift,” headlined La Presse newspaper, catching the mood of division that persists after Mr Jomaa was nominated by a panel intended to promote consensus after the assassination of a second secularist in July raised fears of wider violence.

At stake is the stability of the small North African state, whose overthrow of its strongman ruler three years ago inspired uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria and which now risks being drawn deeper into a messy regional struggle with armed Islamist radicals who have benefited from the upheavals.

Naming a premier gave some relief from months of argument but has deepened secularists’ mistrust of Ennahda, a moderate movement modelled on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and could further delay a deal on permanent political institutions.

Providing a push, however, Western powers and international lenders, holding out the prospect of much-needed economic help, have been urging Tunisian leaders to overcome their rivalries.

Major secular party Nidaa Tounes and its allies abstained from the final vote on Mr Jomaa and have threatened to boycott his cabinet.

Mr Jomaa himself, previously a senior manager at Hutchinson Aerospace, part of France’s Total group, has said little in public as he goes about the business of building a new cabinet before he can be formally confirmed in office.

He faces a number of potential disputes, from the make-up of his cabinet to the completion of the constitution, the appointment of election supervisors to a review of appointments in local governments that Ennahda’s critics say were partisan.

Particularly tricky may be finding a compromise on the date for an election - Ennahda wants a quick vote - and on the role of the current assembly once it has agreed the constitution. Ennahda wants it to continue to sit until a new body is elected. Some opponents want the old parliament wound up.

Technically, the process could be completed within weeks. But Tunisian precedent since 2011 argues against that, as seen most recently in the tussle over a new premier.

“If this process takes too long then we will end up back at square one,” said Lotfi Zitoun, an Ennahda official who noted that the party’s Ali Larayedh remains premier until Mr Jomaa can form a cabinet.

“A country cannot move forward with two prime ministers, and we need to go forward as soon as possible.”

On the other hand, political leaders agree that restoring stability is urgent.

Tourism, a key component of the economy, has suffered along with other businesses since the collapse of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime.

* Reuters