New constitution OK'd; poll date next challenge

PM’s thin resume may be blessing for Tunisia


Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Mehdi Jomaa, who presented the president Sunday with his Cabinet of independents under a road map to end a political deadlock, now faces the daunting task of organizing elections this year in a nation that has been gripped by strikes and often violent protests driven partly by economic malaise.

His announcement came just before the elected constitutional assembly passed a new constitution laying the foundations for a new democracy.

The document is groundbreaking as one of the most progressive constitutions in the Arab world. It sets out to make the country a democracy, with a civil state whose laws are not based on Islamic law, unlike many other Arab constitutions. It also enshrines freedom of religion and women’s rights.

During the two years it took to pass the charter, Tunisia was battered by high unemployment, protests, terrorist attacks, political assassinations and politicians who seemed more interested in posturing than finishing the charter.

Jomaa described his Cabinet as “an extraordinary team that is aware of the challenges,” saying its “mission is not easy.”

The prime minister-designate, an engineer and relative newcomer to politics, was picked in December as the consensus candidate to head the caretaker administration and resolve Tunisia’s festering political crisis, nearly three years after the uprising that toppled former strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

A former industry minister, Jomaa has made the bare minimum of public appearances and statements since taking over from Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh earlier this month, at a time when the political climate is dogged by mistrust between the Islamist former ruling party Ennahda and its mainly secular opponents.

Unemployment and regional inequality were driving factors behind the revolution that unseated Ben Ali, inspiring protests across the Middle East and North Africa that toppled leaders in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Jomaa’s political career began only in March when he was appointed to the Cabinet.

The 51-year-old father of five, who has no stated political affiliations, graduated from the National Engineering School of Tunis in 1988 before taking a higher degree in mechanics.

He then went on to a career in the private sector, and headed a division of Hutchinson, the aerospace unit of French conglomerate Total.

Jomaa became industry minister in the government that Larayedh formed last March, a month after the assassination of key opposition figure Chokri Belaid plunged the country into crisis.

During his time in office, he stayed aloof from political jockeying and focused on his portfolio.

In particular, he has lobbied European firms to invest in the country, plagued by economic woes since the January 2011 revolution.

But he has also taken the unpopular step of backing a decision to raise fuel prices, with Tunisia under pressure to reduce its unaffordable subsidies.

Mahmoud Baroudi, of the Democratic Alliance, an opposition movement critical of Ennahda, believes Jomaa “is competent and independent enough to take on the post of premier.”

But his lack of political experience, particularly on security matters, puts him at a disadvantage in confronting one of Tunisia’s most pressing problems — the threat posed by armed jihadis.

The opposition repeatedly accused the government of failing to rein in militants, who have mounted a wave of attacks since Ennahda was elected in October 2011, and of failing to stimulate an economic revival.

Jomaa’s new government of independents comes amid a lingering political crisis triggered by the killing in July of opposition lawmaker Mohamed Brahmi, which was blamed on Islamic militants.

He had faced some resistance from influential opposition party Nidaa Tounes, which rejected the idea of a prime minister with such little experience in government.

Issam Chebbi, a leader of the party, had said Jomaa would “not be a prime minister of consensus.”

But the fact that his roots are not hard set in the fractious world of Tunisian politics could prove his doubters wrong.