The Jomaa factor in Tunisia’s transition

The confirmation of Mehdi Jomaa as Tunisia’s new prime minister on Jan. 29 ended months of jockeying for power

Oussama Romdhani
Oussama Romdhani
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The confirmation of Mehdi Jomaa as Tunisia’s new prime minister on Jan. 29 ended months of jockeying for power and put the transition on a much steadier course. But a lot is still to happen before the country is definitely out of the woods.

Since his assuming office as head of a caretaker cabinet in place of the Islamist-led Lariaydh government, Mehdi Jomaa has been basking in the sun of public support. According to a recent opinion poll, conducted by the Sigma polling agency after Jomaa assumed office, nearly 70 percent of the public shared the view that the country “is heading in the right direction.” Only 15 percent of public opinion shared this view last October.

In an unprecedented break from previous political polarizations, support for a prime minister clearly bridged the ideological divide. More than 70 percent of the sympathizers of both Ennahda (the country’s main Islamist party) and Nida Tounes (the leading secularist formation) say they are trustful of Jomaa.

His cabinet has impressed most Tunisians. So has the personality of Jomaa, a down-to-earth 52-year-old engineer with no known political affiliations. The new government chief was not a household name before being picked by the participants of the National Dialogue, a conference of the country’s main political parties, steered since last October by the general union of Tunisian workers (UGTT) and other civil society groups. Unable to agree on a “consensus candidate” before Jomaa, the National Dialogue almost appointed a 92-old statesman to the job.

The faith of Tunisians in democracy itself seems to have received a boost by the confirmation of Jomaa. Since the January 2011 uprisings, the Tunisian public used to pin most of its hope on the redeeming value of democracy as the way to a better life. A survey conducted in March-May 2013 by the University of Michigan showed that Tunisians, more than many other Arabs and Muslims, looked up to the democratic ideal as the way out of their crises. The survey indicated that 91 percent of Tunisians shared the belief in democracy as “the ideal form of government,” compared to 86 percent in Iraq, 88 percent in Lebanon, 88 percent in Pakistan, 84 percent in Turkey.

But as the standard of living of Tunisians deteriorated and as democracy became increasingly synonymous with “low-intensity” civil strife, there were signs that the level of adhesion to the “democratic ideal” was quickly eroding. Polls and street manifestations of discontent showed increasing ambivalence about democracy and even a willingness to tolerate an autocratic form of government if it brought with it greater security and better economic conditions. Last October, the International Republic Institute showed that 39 percent of the Tunisian public preferred a stable situation under a non-democratic government, against 53 percent who favored an unstable situation under a democratic government.
Despite the wide support received by the new prime minister, some critics have not been less enthusiastic about his appointment. They argued that Jomaa did not have much experience in Tunisia’s no-holds-barred politics, which could make him easy prey to political predators when the-rough-and-tumble season of electoral sniping opens in the coming months. But Jomaa’s supporters pointed out that the new prime minister, who has committed himself not to run in next elections, was unlikely to be dragged into political hostilities of any sort. French-Algerian academic Nabila Ramdani wrote recently that the “apparent disadvantages” of Jomaa “may be entirely suited to a man who intends to continue Tunisia's quiet revolution through tact and expediency rather than dogma and violence.”

The current grace period will likely give way to close scrutiny by civil society and the media. After three years of unmet revolutionary expectations, on top of decades of autocratic disconnect, distrust comes more naturally to Tunisians than the opposite. Already, a “Jomaa-Meter” has been set up by the Tunisian NGO “I-Watch.” The association’s online project “will attempt to monitor the performance of the recently appointed Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa and his government, by documenting what have been achieved as opposed to what he has promised.”

All transitional governments since January 2011 (when the regime of former president Ben Ali was toppled) have been subjected to skeptical second-guessing. Every single major incident has brought with it a host of conspiracy theories, often undermining trust in the authorities. On top of such events, the unsolved murders, last year, of two leftist leaders, Chokri Belaid and Mohammmad Brahmi. The assassinations have led to serious doubts and wild speculations. With the help of the press and social media, large fringes of the political elite have turned into collective sleuths, all trying to answer the frustrating question of who killed the two politicians.

It is against such a background that Jomaa, a few days into the job, faced his first major security challenge. A group of jihadist terrorists made it from Mount Chaambi, on the country’s western border, to Raoued, one of the capital’s northern suburbs. They did so a few days before the anniversary of Chokri Belaid’s murder, giving the showdown between the group of armed militants and anti-terrorism forces a highly symbolic value. After a 20-hour siege, seven terrorists were killed, including Kamel Gadhgadhi, the presumed assassin of Belaid. The episode showed Jomaa to be strongly determined to fight the scourge of terror. A few hours before the anti-terrorist operation was launched, he met with senior army and security officials and told them that “anti-terrorism doctrines shared by the army and the police, and the clear political determination to vanquish terrorism” meant that terrorists “have no place in our country” and will never be able to change Tunisians’ way of life.

Five days after the Raoued showdown, another terrorist cell was tracked and destroyed in Borj Louzir, five miles away. Even if the regained efficacy of the security forces is increasingly a matter of public pride, the terrorism challenge is likely to remain daunting. The probability is high that terrorists will continue trickling across Tunisia’s borders, especially that hundreds of young Tunisian jihadiststs are reported to be still fighting in Syria and other battlegrounds of jihad. One of the terrorists killed in the Raoued confrontation reportedly received his training in the Gaza Strip. Arms and explosives are regularly seized by the security forces, as the minister of the Interior Lotfi Ben Jeddou has recently disclosed.

Anti-terrorism victories might not be sufficient to convince the most die-hard skeptics. But there are already signs the rest of the public is being won. Developing credible narratives will remain, however, as important as waging the anti-terrorism war itself. The perception of the country as a safe place to visit and where to do business will be crucial to restoring the confidence of tourists, foreign investors and international donors.

Deteriorating confidence has cost the country a lot already, in terms of repeated downgrades of sovereign ratings, fall of global competitiveness rankings and stalled international bank loans. Tunisia was ranked 83rd by the 2013-2014 “Global Competitiveness Report” (put out by the Davos-based World Economic Forum). It lost 43 places, compared to the 2011-2012 report, where it had ranked 40th.

“Major exogenous and endogenous shocks have posed serious challenges to the Tunisian economy,” noted the International Monetary Fund mission to Tunisia, last December. The IMF team explained that “the lengthy consultation process required to complete the political transition, as well as security incidents, have had an adverse effect on confidence in the Tunisian economy, as reflected in slower growth, delayed reform implementation, and investors’ prolonged wait-and-see attitude.”
High unemployment, slow economic growth and endemic work stoppages, such as those nearly paralyzing the phosphates sector, have –for many months- deprived the state of revenues and discouraged domestic and foreign investments.

A lot will eventually depend on the ability of political actors to continue striking compromises and accepting reconciliation as an alternative to score-settling

Oussama Romdhani

Faced with continuous social unrest, the previous transitional governments felt compelled to increase public spending, thus pushing the budget deficit up (to about 7.5 percent of the GDP). “State expenditures for subsidies alone increased from 8.4 percent in the 2010 to account for 16 percent in the 2013 state budget,” noted recently Svetlana Milbert , senior economist at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Under social pressure, the outgoing government had to cancel plans to impose new taxes aimed at balancing the budget.

The socio-economic quandary with which Jomaa will have to deal is linked to one central problem - that of high unemployment, especially among university graduates. The overall rate remains at 15.7 percent. More specifically, joblessness affects more than 33 percent of university graduates and more than 43 percent of young female graduates.

With unemployment remaining high, putting austerity measures on the table again will be hard to do for the Jomaa cabinet. But continuing government spending at the same pace of the last three years will be also untenable. Jomaa knows that, and he has no problem admitting it. “If we asked Tunisians whether they thought it wise to increase public spending and resort to indebtedness while economic growth is shrinking, there is no doubt their answer will be ‘No’ ,” he told Tunisian legislators on his confirmation hearing. But at a time when the purchasing power of the middle and lower classes seems increasingly in jeopardy, it remains uncertain whether trade unions will accept to limit work stoppages or accept to make concessions regarding price subsidies.

‘No miracle maker’

As part of the agreement between main political parties and national organizations, the new government is expected to dismantle the “Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution” (described by their secularists nemeses as de facto “pro-Islamist militias”), rescind all politically-motivated civil service appointments, ensure the political “neutrality” of mosques, and lay the ground for next elections. Having to meet all such objectives in less than a year, the Jomaa cabinet has to land running and watch for unexpected obstacles along the way. And even that might not be enough. The new prime minister, who often repeats he is “no miracle maker,” knows that reversing the accumulated socio-economic problems will require a much longer time-frame that the one that comes with his term in office. The social and economic woes of the country are clearly long-term problems requiring long-term solutions.

A lot will eventually depend on the ability of political actors to continue striking compromises and accepting reconciliation as an alternative to score-settling. Much will also depend on the willingness of outside donors and investors to quickly snap-off their “wait-and-see-attitude.” The Wall Street Journal wrote recently that “Tunisia could use the economic assistance and trade opening long promised by Washington and Brussels.” Many regional and international banking institutions are likely to follow the recent example of the IMF in releasing loan tranches to Tunisia. A number of Western nations, as well as neighboring Algeria, are also expected to make good on their pledges of help. Such forms of international support will not by themselves ensure the recovery of the Tunisian economy. But they will give Jomaa, and more so his successors, breathing room allowing them to restore social economic balances without being continuously spooked by a sense of impending financial doom.
In starting to rein-in terrorism, shore up the economy and appease domestic politics, at least for the duration of his term, Jomaa can start to send the right signals to audiences at home and abroad.

Above everything else, Jomaa knows that at the end of the day he will be most critically judged on one particular benchmark: making sure free and fair elections are held on time. He has himself made this, “the highest goal” of his government. No less than 72 percent of the public believe he can meet this objective. Even if that ends up being the only goal he achieves, Jomaa will have ample reason to consider his mission accomplished.


Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst. Official blog page:

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