Tunisia’s parliament has passed a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Habib Essid, effectively dismantling his coalition government. The no-confidence motion was passed by 118 votes, well above the country’s 109-vote threshold.
On 30 July, the hemicycle of the Bardo Palace in the capital Tunis was packed. Parliamentary attendance is usually low, even for important sessions. Moreover, at this time of the year when hot weather is coupled with school holidays, many MPs prefer to stay at home or take annual leave.
Saturday’s session was notable for several other reasons: Essid himself called the vote, which is the first of its kind in Tunisia’s democratic history, and he knew beforehand that he would lose.
It remains unclear exactly why he opted for this bold move, although he had been under pressure to resign after President Beji Caid Essebsi called for a new national unity government in June, amid ongoing economic turmoil and security concerns.
As the days went by, and Essid showed no signs of stepping down, rumours began to circulate that the relationship between the two men had deteriorated. People close to the prime minister, including his spokesperson Khaled Chouket, began to criticize Essebsi publicly.
Essebsi spent several weeks in talks with different political parties and figures about the shape a new government should take. His efforts were realized in the ‘Carthage Pact’, signed on 13 July by Tunisia’s main political parties and civil society organizations.
But the question on everyone’s lips was: why this initiative, and why now?
Essid was nominated as prime minister by Essebsi’s secular Nidaa Tounes party on 5 January 2015 and asked to form a new government. On 2 February 2015, Essid announced a coalition whose members included representatives from Nidaa Tounes, the Islamist Ennahda party, and the liberal Free Patriotic Union (UPL) and Afek Tounes parties. This formation was approved by parliament on 5 February 2015 and the cabinet members were sworn in a day later.
Essid is reputed to be honest and straightforward. He has spent most of his career in the public sector, and is considered a connoisseur of its inner workings. He served as the cabinet director at the Ministry of the Interior under former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, was twice appointed secretary of state (for Fishing and the Environment), also under Ben Ali, and, following the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, was named as interior minister in the government of then Prime Minister Essebsi. Essid was thus well known in political circles, but not to the general public, and his 2015 appointment came as a surprise to many.
It was widely believed that Essid was nominated because of his loyalty to Essebsi and for his docile nature. Although the prime minister has more power than the president in Tunisia’s constitution, the latter wanted to take the ascendency and needed a quiet executive, not a challenger. Essid was accepted by all political parties, and respected by many in the opposition.
Despite being approved by Tunisia’s parliament in a comfortable 166-30 vote, Essid’s cabinet inherited a litany of problems: a stagnating economy, high public spending, ongoing social unrest, widespread corruption, frequent terrorist attacks and a hostile regional environment, to name a few.
A year and a half later, the government’s attempts to address these problems had largely failed. While some progress had been made to improve security, the country was hit by the worst terrorist attacks in its history. The major economic and fiscal reforms Essid was expected to deliver did not materialize. His supporters argue that he was not given enough time.
Furthermore, Essid has had health problems. He was rushed to hospital three times, for undisclosed reasons, and was once hospitalized for almost a week.Moreover, the coalition was faltering. By the end of 2015, disagreements within Nidaa Tounes has split the party in two. UPL was also reeling from a series of resignations. These difficulties steadily undermined Essid’s authority and he found himself increasingly isolated.
Why he did not simply resign remains a mystery. In the last few weeks, the normally media-shy PMr made three television appearances, openly criticizing the president’s unity government initiative. Was this an act of defiance against Essebsi? Or was it in fact an agreement between the two men that will see Essebsi take over the premiership? Did he get prior backing from Ennahda before they ditched him?
Dozens of MPs asked to speak during the confidence vote. Most of them praised Essid’s character and the work of his government. After he had responded, he was given two standing ovations. Yet when it came time to vote, only three voted for him. Essid, the honest, straightforward PM, had been ousted by a crooked political class.
On 3 August 2016 President Essebsi nominated Youssef Chahde, Minister of Local Affairs since January 2016 and member of the Nidaa Tounes party, as new prime minister. The parliament now has a month to approve nomination. Once approved, the prime minister has in turn a month to appoint a cabinet which will be presented to parliament. Tunisia is once again in political limbo, which will only serve to deepen its economic woes and encourage those intent on harming its security to act.