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Power to the Next Generation? The Rise of Tunisia’s Presidential Hopeful Youssef Chahed

Tunisia- Youssef Chahed
Photo AFP

Tahya Tounes! (‘long live Tunisia’) was the headline that appeared on the front pages of Tunisia’s newspapers on 27 January 2019.

Tahya Tounes is also the name of Tunisia’s newest political party, founded in the coastal city of Monastir by former members of the ruling Nidaa Tounes party. It promises to unite secular parties around ‘a modern democratic project to lead the nation and to compete with the Islamists’.

Many Tunisians must have had a sense of déjà vu. The new political movement, to be led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, appeared to be a strategically orchestrated attempt at an improved version of Nidaa Tounes.

The movement emerged out of a feud between two political generations within the ruling party, embodied by the 92-year-old founder President Beji Caid Essebsi on the one side and 43-year-old Chahed, Essebsi’s former protégé and appointee, on the other.

For now, the future looks pretty rosy for the ambitious government leader. Tunisia’s youngest prime minister ever, Chahed is poised to shift the country’s political dynamics.

Chahed, married and the father of a daughter, graduated in 1998 from the National Agriculture Institute of Tunisia. In 2003, he received his PhD in agricultural economics from the same institute. His doctoral thesis, titled ‘Measuring the impact of agricultural trade liberalization on trade and welfare’, may have laid the groundwork for a position at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) at the US embassy in the capital Tunis, where he worked as an expert in agricultural policies. Two documents he wrote that appeared in the press after he became prime minister in 2016 revealed a distinctly ‘US-friendly’ slant, fuelling insinuations in the media that he would be willing ‘to sell Tunisia’.

In a televised interview with Ettasia TV, a private television channel, in December 2018, Chahed summarized his family background: “I was raised in a Destourian family and my uncle Hassib Ben Ammar, ex-director of the Neo Destour party, founded the Tunisian Human Rights League.” He conveniently ‘forgot’ to mention his famous feminist activist grandmother Radhia Haddad (after whom a street in downtown Tunis is named), known as a critic of Neo Destour’s founder and the country’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourquiba, also the self-proclaimed architect of ‘modern Tunisia’.

Tacitly anticipating the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for October and December 2019 respectively, this creative manipulation of the facts was an attempt by Chahed to brand himself as a leader to whom voters could entrust Tunisia’s modernist project, modelled on the Neo Destour party, the historical movement behind Tunisia’s progressive (‘Western’) self-image.

Chahed’s political ambitions emerged in the wake of the ouster of long-time leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Chahed, infused with the ‘everything is possible’ euphoria of the time, co-founded the liberal/centrist Dal Joumhouri party, with his friend and confidant Slim Azzabi, now the figurehead of Tahya Tounes. Yet he pragmatically decided to switch parties when Dal Joumhouri appeared too weak to compete with rising star Nidaa Tounes, a catch-all party driven by political celebrities.

In contrast to his maverick outsider image, neophyte Chahed largely benefitted from Essebsi’s brand of ‘keeping it in the family’ recruitment that Chahed would later so fervently denounce. Essebsi, in an attempt to put an end to ongoing rivalries plaguing the party, nominated freshly appointed Secretary of State Chahed in 2015 as leader of a ‘consensus’ commission to mediate a power struggle between Vice President Hafedh Caid Essebsi (the president’s son) and Secretary General Mohsen Marzouk.

It was probably not the success Chahed had hoped for and expected; four of the 13 members left the commission, accusing Chahed of favouring the Essebsis.

Nevertheless, Essebsi appointed Chahed as prime minister soon after, following the ouster of Habid Essid in a parliamentary vote of no confidence on 30 July 2016. Chahed’s meteoric political rise under the president’s wing would undermine his political credibility for the following years.

‘Chahed is the project of the president; he created him. At the time, Essebsi wanted to get rid of Habib Essid, whose stubbornness started to become more and more annoying to the presidential palace in Carthage. No such risk with a young professor in agricultural economics who knew more about the French woods, where he had taught, then about Tunisian politics,’ the Middle East Eye, a news website, noted.

Yet the desired consensus quickly began to show signs of strain. Chahed found himself reportedly isolated as the relationship with Hafedh Caid Essebsi cracked and his complaints against obstructionists within the government and administration emerged. An outlier, Chahed, showing little patience for the sensitivities within Nidaa Tounes and repeatedly emphasizing that he had to devote all his efforts to his duties as PM, pulled away from the deepening party rivalries and struggled to push through unpopular reforms mostly imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“Chahed never really found his place in Nidaa Tounes; he didn’t manage to establish himself,” said Selim Kharrat, executive director at al-Bawsala, a well-known Tunisian civil society organization, in an interview with Middle East Eye.

Radwan Masmoudi, founder and president of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, offered Fanack a different explanation. “I think he referred to people who belonged to the old regime as well as ‘lobbies’ or to corrupt business people. This is normal and to be expected during a period of transition from dictatorship to democracy. I think he is trying harder than his predecessors, since the 2014 elections, to go after corruption and corrupt individuals.”

The International Crisis Group confirmed this view in a 2017 report, pointing to ‘the hidden influence of the economic elite’ in Tunisia who are impeding Chahed’s ability to implement necessary reforms.

Chahed broke ranks in May 2017, launching a ‘war on corruption’. “In the war on corruption, there’s no choice. It’s either corruption or the state. Either corruption or Tunisia,” he said at the time. The ‘war’ started with the arrest of a couple of prominent businessmen and politicians close to Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, another of the main political parties, among them Chafik Jarraya, an ally of Hafedh Caid Essebsi and an important Nidaa Tounes donor.

It was a bold decision. Shortly before, Maghreb Confidential, a pan-African news site, wrote that several of the influential figures suspected of corruption in the ruling party were preparing to replace the prime minister with one of his ministers, Fadel Abdelkafi.

In terms of marketing, however, the war on corruption was undeniably a big success, whipping up massive popular support and elevating Chahed to the status – albeit short-lived – of a rock star.

Critics, however, described the campaign as merely a way to divert attention from the social unrest in many parts of the country, especially in regions with oilfields such as Tataouine in the south.

Moreover, the appointment of controversial figures from the old regime, the adoption of a reconciliation law granting amnesty to officials accused of corruption during Ben Ali’s rule and the postponement of local elections damaged Chahed’s credibility as a corruption warrior.

Some of his other decisions have also been met with opposition. For example, the dismissal of Abdeljelil Ben Salem, the minister of religious affairs, in November 2016, for making a connection between Wahhabism and terrorism, was criticized as bowing to the will of Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is the state religion.

A small number of ‘strategic’ dismissals, commonly supposed to please one or other convenient ally or eliminate enemies, followed. By firing Abid Briki, civil service minister and former official of the powerful national workers union UGTT, in February 2016, Chahed exacerbated the already strained relationship with the unions.

“What makes a good head of government is realism, an excellent sense of priorities, experience and the ability to build a cohesive team,” an eloquent Noureddine Taboubi, leader of the UGTT, said in March 2018. His words reflected general frustration over economic hardships and unfulfilled promises. Chahed acquired an ‘all talk and no action’ reputation. His apparently stubborn determination to implement the IMF reforms ramped up opposition within his own party and from the left-wing parties, which had sided with the unions.

In May 2018, Hafehd Caid Essebsi, concerned that Nidaa Tounes’ poor results in local elections would have severe repercussions for the 2019 elections, urged Chahed, already Tunisia’s longest serving prime minister, to quit, catalyzing an unprecedented government deadlock and the resignation of dozens of Nidaa Tounes parliamentarians. They went on to form ‘the national coalition’, the forerunner of Tahya Tounes.

The ongoing feud between Chahed and the Essebsis boiled over into open warfare. According to the International Crisis Group, the president and leaders of Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda had already reached an agreement to remove Chahed during the summer of 2017.

“It’s a conflict over the upcoming elections,” said political analyst Salaheddine al-Jourchi to French newspaper La Croix. “It is omnipresent in everyone’s interests,” he added, echoing accusations from both within and outside Nidaa Tounes that Chahed is abusing his position to build his own political party.

“Not true,” said Chahed’s friend Azzabi at the launch of Tahya Tounes. “All of us belong to the same democratic and modest family. The new party will not be one of leaders and names,” he said, referring to the nepotism allegations against the Essebsis.

An independent Chahed, seizing the constitutional autonomy granted to the prime minister, hit Essebsi’s Achilles heel.

“The Tunisian constitution stipulates that the executive branch has two heads: the president of the republic and the prime minister, each having their own prerogatives. This is a negative aspect that needs to be modified,” Essebsi said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.

As to the dysfunctional relationship between Nidaa Tounes and Chahed, Essebsi said that the matter was related to Chahed’s desire to remain in power.

The prime minister with nine lives seems to have turned the situation to his own advantage, casting himself as ‘Tunisia’s new face’. “I will vote for Chahed when he runs for president,” declared Minister for Agriculture Samir Taieb in a radio interview, “because he is the incarnation of the future of Tunisia and has a clear mission for Tunisia.”

Chahed’s backers say his anti-corruption and anti-nepotism leadership will finally mean a choice for voters seeking a politician with integrity. His detractors, many from his former party, Nidaa Tounes, say he is a nitwit who has abused his position as prime minister to create his own political party, with the aim of bolstering his chances in the upcoming elections.

Khaled Chouket, a left-wing co-founder of Nidaa Tounes, is more skeptical. “Leading a country is one thing, building up a political party is something else,” he said in an interview with Fanack, about his experiences with Nidaa Tounes. The continuous infighting since the party’s establishment in 2012 raised questions about the leadership’s ability to focus on the country’s challenges.

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