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Tunisia Has Approved a New Coalition Government — But Not Everybody's Happy About It

The inclusion of Islamist party Ennahda has drawn opposition from leftist and secular parties — including the prime minister-designate's own Nidaa Tounes — and warnings that the alliance of rivals won't last.

by Giulia Aloisio
Feb 5 2015, 2:30pm

Image via Reuters

Tunisian lawmakers have approved a new coalition government proposed by the prime minister-designate Habib Essid, amid fierce debate over the inclusion of the Islamist party Ennahda and warnings that the alliance of rivals could soon collapse.

The country's parliament voted in favor of the government by 166 to 30 on Thursday morning, following a drawn-out and passionate debate that was originally scheduled to go to a vote on Wednesday. 

The new government is expected to focus primarily on economic reforms, under the guidance of new finance minister Selim Chaker, and security. Indeed, it is one of Tunisia's goals to fight the rise of jihadi fighters travelling to Iraq and Syria and the attacks that have been carrying out by Islamist militants following the 2011 revolution.

"The main priority of our government is to establish security and the fight against terrorism. We need to hurry to adopt new anti-terror laws", said Essid.

The ratification of the new government has been a controversial issue for Tunisian politicians due to the coalition of Essid's party Nidaa Tounes with its main opponent, the Islamist party Ennahda. A previous proposal of a governing team was rejected by the parliament. 

Although Ennahda's participation in the new government is mainly symbolic, with only one ministerial seat — Zied Laadhari, new minister of employment — and three secretary of state posts allocated to the Islamist party, its inclusion has generated concerns.

Some fear that a coalition government formed by the two main rival parties of Tunisia will erode democracy, as a real opposition will be lacking. Others say that Nidaa Tounes should not have entered into a coalition with a party that holds such a contrasting view of the relationship religion should have with the State.

Secular and liberal parties are particularly opposed to the move. 

"This government is incapable of carrying out radical economic and social reforms", said the head of center-left party Congress for the Republic, Imed Daimi. He warned that a coalition between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda would soon collapse.

Tensions have also arisen within Nidaa Tounes over the alliance.

"We did not get what we wanted in the new government. Our regional leadership are not satisfied with Ennahda's involvement in the cabinet," Nidaa Tounes official Boujemaa Remili told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Taïeb Baccouche, the secretary general of Nidaa Tounes, appointed as foreign minister in the new cabinet, also came out against Essid's decision to form a coalition government with Ennahda. The eight abstentions from the vote included two senior party figures, Abdelaziz Kotti and Khemais Ksila, both members of Nidaa Tounes' executive board.

Nevertheless, others regard the new government as representing Tunisia's new turn towards pluralism and political compromise, four years after the end of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali's autocracy. The inclusion of women in the new government has won praise as well.

Monica Marks, a Tunisia-based analyst and visiting fellow at Columbia University, told VICE News that she expected the parties would be able to cooperate in a functional way. "Ennahda is unlikely to vocally champion its own agenda on cultural or revolutionary issues," she said, as "it has staked out a policy of 'going along to get along.'" Some issues would however be challenging, such as the reform of problematic pieces of legislation, and how to pursue Salafis and returning jihadis from Syria, she suggested.

Marks was optimistic about Tunisia's political future, saying that if it was able to consolidate its newborn democracy, that would be "a major triumph, an outstanding horizontal example in the region." 

The cabinet, named on Monday, is the second one proposed by Essid.

The first government put forward by the prime minister-designate included Nidaa Tounes and a number of small parties but excluded Ennahda. Ennahda, which holds 69 parliamentary seats, and the smaller Afek Tounes and the Popular Front all voted against it, complaining it was not representative of the parliament's composition. Nidaa Tounes holds 86 parliamentary seats. 

Main image: Ennahda supporters at a campaign event ahead of parliamentary elections in October. Image via Reuters.

Additional reporting by Donato Paolo Mancini.