Tunisia's Al Nahda unveils new cabinet in latest bid to placate critics

Eager to tamp down political instability, Tunisia's ruling Al Nahda party announced a new cabinet today that it hopes will allow the party to focus on political reform and the economy.

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
Tunisia's Prime Minister Ali Larayedh speaks during a news conference in Tunis Friday. Larayedh unveiled a new Islamist-led coalition government on Friday that he said would serve only until an election is held before the end of the year.

Tunisia’s ruling Al Nahda (Ennahda) party today unveiled a new cabinet lineup it hopes will end political squabbling that has stalled democratic reforms and threatened its own hold on power.

That may succeed, but a tougher test awaits: voters. 

For Al Nahda, an Islamist party that swept 2011 parliamentary elections, the stakes are high. Many ordinary Tunisians blame the coalition government it leads for economic malaise. Al Nahda needs to prove it can lead the country as rivals gear up for elections later this year in which they hope to best the party, or at least clip its wings. 

Meanwhile, a new constitution and preparations for elections are months overdue. It’s still unclear what kind of system will ultimately replace the regime of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled two years ago. 

Work towards building a new system has been crippled by months of political deadlock. The Feb. 6 murder of an opposition leader unleashed pent-up anger and leaders scrambled to calm the public and resolve a dispute over cabinet posts that has hobbled the government since last summer. 

Then-Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, from Al Nahda, proposed replacing the government with a purely technocratic cabinet. Major opposition parties and one of Al Nahda's coalition partners initially backed the plan.

But Al Nahda did not. It argues that its 2011 electoral win warrants it a healthy slice of power. Mr. Jebali, thwarted by his party, stepped down and was replaced two weeks ago by Ali Larayedh, a senior Al Nahda member who has served thus far as interior minister.

Since then, Mr. Larayedh has been cloistered with party leaders to hammer out a new cabinet. Al Nahda has been under pressure to relinquish powerful ministries – in particular, justice and foreign affairs. Talks have stretched to the brink of a 15-day legal deadline.

The new 37-member line-up looks like an effort at conciliation, with more room for other groups' participation. The share of Ennahda members as compared to the outgoing government has dropped from 40 to 28 percent, while 48 percent will now be independents, according to statements on one of the party’s official Facebook pages. Mr. Larayedh vows his government will retire by the end of this year. Editor's note: This paragraph has been edited to correctly reflect the changes to the cabinet. 

Relatively unknown independents are to head the justice, foreign affairs, defense, and interior ministries, and some polarizing figures will be replaced. Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem is gone from the new cabinet, although Noureddine Bhiri, the justice minister, reappears as an advisor to Mr. Larayedh.

The new government is likely to pass a vote by Tunisia’s constituent assembly, where Al Nahda and its partners dominate. How opposition parties react remains to be seen. For Al Nahda the toughest crowd to please may be voters.

Seventy-seven percent of Tunisians feel their country is going the wrong way, according to a poll published in January by the International Republican Institute. Unemployment, which hovers around 17 percent, trumps other concerns, and only 35 percent of respondents said they were happy with the government so far.

The new government must also impress foreign investors and donors whose support is crucial to solving economic woes. The International Monetary Fund has put on hold a planned loan of $1.78 billion until the political crisis is resolved.

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