Then-Tunisian Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi speaks during a press conference at the ministry headquarters in Tunis, March 6, 2020. (Anis Mili/AFP via Getty Images)

3rd Time’s a Charm for PM: Tunisia’s Democracy Growing Pains Continue

Hichem Mechichi is the third candidate tasked to form a government in less than a year

The road to democracy is never easy, particularly for Tunisia. In the only Arab Spring country to successfully topple its autocratic leader, Tunisians ousted President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in a series of protests, forcing him to flee Tunis in 2011.

Today, Tunisia is trying to strengthen the system of government it people fought so hard to obtain, amid political and economic turmoil.

With approximately a month to form a government, many are concerned about the battle Hichem Mechichi, the new prime minister-designate and the country’s third ministerial candidate in less than a year, has ahead of him. In addition to the current political instability, Mechichi must contend with Tunisia’s ailing economy, already made worse by the novel coronavirus.

Tunisian President Kais Saied selected Mechichi, his former advisor, as prime minister-designate on July 25. Saied’s decision went against all the political parties’ recommendations for head of government.

“The choice of Mechichi is apolitical and bears Kais Saied’s signature….,” Dr. Arnaud Kurze, professor of justice studies at Montclair State University in New Jersey and a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, told The Media Line.

Saied’s pick also indicates the head of state’s new willingness to be more involved in the political process, according to Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program who specializes in Tunisia’s politics and economy.

“His selection is a signal that President Saied is trying to take a more hands-on role in moving the democratic transition forward. By selecting one of his own people he is signaling that he will be more closely tied to the chief of government, should Mechichi succeed in forming a government,” Yerkes said.

This political maneuver comes with both pros and cons in terms of Mechichi’s chances to form a government.

“The nonpolitical status of the new [prime minister delegate] is an asset,” Kurze said. “Hichem Mechichi is also the first head of government coming from Northwest Tunisia, a region that is economically and politically marginalized. This background could play in his favor.”

Many of the protests during the Arab Spring were driven by people in dire economic straits, something that is more common in the region Mechichi hails from.

The continued financial distress threatens Tunisia’s political stability. The unemployment rate rose to 15.1% in the first quarter of 2020, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics.

“Tunisia is entering a critical period after the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated [whole] sectors of the economy, raising unemployment and requiring a strong and united government to tackle the challenges necessary to prevent further economic collapse,” Yerkes said.

Mechichi also has his work cut out for him politically, especially with a divided legislature.

“It remains to be seen if he will manage to win the confidence of members of parliament in September, particularly since the president has neglected to adequately integrate political parties into his strategic calculations,” Kurze said, adding that Mechichi’s task is made more difficult by the fractious relationships between the parties in the legislature’s majority coalition.

Yerkes argues that the constant changes in leadership have been preventing Tunisia from enacting more democratic reforms.

“This continual turnover of governments is very dangerous for Tunisia’s democracy. Because of all the in-fighting and the enormous amount of time the parliament has to spend on debating government formation, it eats away at the ability of the parliament to pass much-needed legislation to consolidate the democratic transition,” she said.

The popularity of Saied’s pick is difficult to determine, as Mechichi is not a household name.

“He is not a well-known public figure, so it is hard to tell exactly how the Tunisia public perceives him. But he is currently the interior minister, which is not generally a well-liked person,” Yerkes said. “That said, most Tunisians likely do not have a strong opinion about him.”

When it comes to international affairs, Mechichi is also a candidate that would maintain the good relationship Tunis has with Washington.

“His technocratic career background and [former position as interior minister] makes him a promising candidate for future US-Tunisian collaborations and US support in terms of fighting extremism,” Kurze said. “In fact, the new designee is a former jurist and career civil servant.”

Mechichi’s predecessor, Elyes Fakhfakh, resigned on July 15, after less than five months in office, following a no-confidence vote in parliament. He was constantly at odds with Ennahda, the majority party in the ruling coalition, and was accused of profiting from government deals after an opposition member said Fakhfakh held shares in a company that secured contracts from the state worth $15 million. Fakhfakh denies the allegations.

Back in November 2019, Saied asked the Ennahda-picked Habib Jemli, a former agricultural engineer, to form a government, but he failed to garner enough support in the legislature.

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