Last updated: 8 March, 2013

Tunisia in last-ditch talks to form new government

Premier-designate Ali Larayedh unveiled Tunisia’s new coalition government on Friday after reaching a last-minute deal aimed at ending a major political crisis, with independents given key portfolios in a clear concession by Islamists.

Larayedh, a member of the powerful Islamist Ennahda party, said he submitted his line-up to President Moncef Marzouki and was confident parliament will give the cabinet its vote of confidence.

His announcement on state television came just hours before a midnight deadline and after two weeks of fraught discussions, tensions and uncertainty sparked by the February 6 murder of leftist politician Chokri Belaid by a suspected radical Muslim.

Larayedh said the new team, made up from parties of the outgoing coalition and independents, will step down at the end of the year after legislative and presidential elections are held.

Key portfolios — which had been at the centre of a tug of war between Islamists and the opposition — were given to independent candidates little known by most Tunisians.

Lotfi Ben Jeddou, who served as prosecutor in the western town of Kasserine, will head the interior ministry, while veteran diplomat Othman Jarandi, a former ambassador to the United Nations and Jordan, becomes foreign minister.

University professor Rachid Sabagh will head the defence ministry and former judge at the court of cassation Nadhir Ben Ammou becomes the new minister of justice.

These appointments reflect a key concession by Ennahda to hand key ministries to non-partisan figures, with parties in the outgoing coalition getting less sensitive posts.

Ennahda said on its Twitter account that 48 percent of portfolios in the new government will be in the hands of independents. Islamists will control 28 percent, compared with 40 percent in the outgoing line-up.

Prominent opposition figure Hamma Hammami, whose Popular Front had close ties with Belaid, criticised Larayedh’s cabinet.

“This new government will not be better than the previous one and its fate will be the same as the outgoing cabinet because it was formed with the same partisan mentality,” Hammami told AFP.

Several members of the previous government will be keeping their posts in the new cabinet, including from Ennahda’s secular coalition partners — Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol.

Parliament has three days to endorse or reject the new line and Larayedh was optimistic.

“We expect that the government line-up will receive the confidence” of parliament, he said.

Ennahda and its secular partners from the outgoing coalition government control 109 out of 217 seats in the National Constituent Assembly, enough to ensure a vote of confidence.

But this support is far from enough to steer Tunisia from the worst crisis since the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his regime — and ensure support for a much-delayed new constitution.

Larayedh said the new line-up would work “to the end of 2013 at the latest,” on the assumption that a new constitution has been adopted and legislative and presidential elections held in the meantime.

He declined to speculate on when the elections would be held, saying that was a prerogative of the assembly, but suggested they could be in October-November.

Larayedh, a 57-year-old naval engineer and outgoing interior minister, was jailed and tortured under Ben Ali’s regime and spent 13 years in isolation.

He is seen as a moderate and a man of dialogue but has been also accused of complacency towards the rising threat of violence from Tunisia’s ultra-conservative Salafist Muslims, who have been blamed for Belaid’s murder.

The assassination exacerbated lingering political, security and economic problems in Tunisia. The country is plagued by social unrest linked to unemployment and poverty — key factors behind the 2011 uprising.

Larayedh was tapped on February 22 to head a new cabinet following the resignation Hamadi Jebali after he failed to forge a non-partisan government of technocrats.

He reached a deal to form his cabinet after “marathon negotiations” even though three parties walked out of the talks.

Ennahda is deeply mistrusted by a large section of the secular opposition, which accuses it of authoritarian tendencies and of trying to bring about the Islamisation of Tunisian society.