Tunisia wobbles further as PM resigns and credit rating drops

Standard and Poor's downgraded Tunisia's credit rating yesterday for the third time since former leader Ben Ali was ousted.

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
Tunisia's Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali speaks as he announces his resignation during a news conference in Tunis Tuesday. Jebali resigned on Tuesday after his attempt to form a government of technocrats and end a political crisis failed.

Tunisia has avoided large-scale turbulence since protests toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali two years ago, but a political shoving match that prompted Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali to resign last night shows how complicated democratic change can be. 

Mr. Jebali's decision was brought on in large part by opposition from within his own party. His move adds a new wobble to political shakiness that – coupled with periodic rioting and labor strikes – has prolonged an economic slump and sense of disorder. Tourism and foreign investment are down, and unemployment is up. 

Hours before Jebali announced his resignation, Standard and Poor's rating agency downgraded Tunisia’s credit rating for the third time since Mr. Ben Ali’s removal: from BB to BB-.

Resolving such problems requires long-term policies that are all the more difficult to maintain amid political ups-and-downs, says Henry Smith, a North Africa analyst at Control Risks, a British risk assessment firm. 

“Ministerial changes, unease among civil servants, and bureaucratic delays will continue to slow business operations, while the causes of security threats will be unmet during this period,” Mr. Smith says. 

For now, the immediate future is murky. Jebali may be asked to return, or someone else might take over. Meanwhile, a new constitution and preparations for elections expected this summer are long overdue. 

Cultural clash

Tunisia’s current trouble goes back at least two years. Demonstrations over unemployment and corruption became an uprising against Ben Ali’s two-decade rule. He fled the country in January 2011 as his regime collapsed.

Overnight, a culture war broke out between secularists and the moderate Islamist Ennahda (Al Nahda) party. Ennahda ultimately formed a coalition government with two secularist parties after winning October 2011 elections.

Today, many say that government has failed. Ennahda has taken most of the heat. Opposition parties accuse it of lenience toward violent groups, from hardline Salafi Muslims to unruly pro-government demonstrators. Ordinary Tunisians increasingly blame it for economic malaise.

Ennahda has also refused a demand since last summer from its coalition partners – the Congrès pour la République (CPR) and Ettakatol parties – that it relinquish powerful ministries, including foreign affairs and justice.

Tunisian tempers snapped on Feb. 6 after an unknown gunman killed Chokri Belaid, an opposition party leader and fervent government critic. Thousands hit the streets in protest, with some blaming Ennahda and many calling for a new government.


For Jebali, the crisis warranted desperate measures. He proposed replacing the government with a caretaker cabinet of apolitical technocrats – bypassing a possible vote by Tunisia’s constituent assembly – to steer the country to elections. He pledged to step down if too many parties opposed him.

The stiffest challenge came from his own party, Ennahda. It wants a mixed cabinet of technocrats and politicians subject to a vote by the assembly, where it holds 89 of 217 seats. The CPR also rejected Jebali’s proposal.

Some other parties backed Jebali, while still more have appeared to vacillate. The Ettakatol party first warmed to his proposal, then backed off. Nida Tounes, a rising opposition force, supported it at first but later said it recognized the proposal had failed.

Last night Jebali went on TV to admit his proposal’s defeat and announce his resignation.

“This is a big disappointment,” he said. “Our people are disillusioned by the political class. We must restore confidence."

'Little Constitution' not up to the task 

What might happen next is unclear – an ambiguity compounded by Tunisia’s lack of a constitution. The country runs, for now, on a temporary procedural law often known here as the “Little Constitution.”

“The problem is that the scenario of a prime minister resigning isn’t envisaged,” says Amna Guellali, a trained lawyer and Tunis-based researcher for Human Rights Watch

In theory, either articles 15 of the Little Constitution (on forming a government) or 19 (on removing it by no-confidence vote in the assembly) might be applied, Ms. Guellali says. “But there’s no consensual understanding of how this would take place.”

Jebali’s fortunes are also in question. In theory, he may be asked to return at the head of a new government. For now, he remains Ennahda’s secretary general and appears to have the party’s support, even if his proposal does not.

Parties from across the spectrum agree broadly that a new government line-up is needed. Many including Ennahda say they want to form a broad coalition to build the next cabinet.

Yesterday Jebali expressed openness to leading a new government provided it was free of partisan power-plays and made finishing the constitution and holding elections its top priorities.

But even these, while necessary, are only a start to solving problems, says Mr. Smith, from Control Risks. “Fragmented party politics, fragile coalition governments, and structural socio-economic problems will drive instability beyond the transition.”

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