Tunisia's Islamist premier Ali Larayedh gives a press conference after submitting his resignation to President Moncef Marzouki in Tunis on January 9, 2014
Tunisia's Islamist premier Ali Larayedh gives a press conference after submitting his resignation to President Moncef Marzouki in Tunis on January 9, 2014 © Fethi Belaid - AFP
Tunisia's Islamist premier Ali Larayedh gives a press conference after submitting his resignation to President Moncef Marzouki in Tunis on January 9, 2014
Antoine Lambroschini, AFP
Last updated: January 10, 2014

Tunisia awaits independent cabinet to oversee new elections

Tunisia's premier-designate Mehdi Jomaa was tasked Friday with forming a cabinet of independents to end months of political deadlock and lead the country to fresh elections after the Islamist-led government finally quit.

Jomaa's appointment after his predecessor Ali Larayedh's resignation on Thursday, under an agreement to get Tunisia's democratic transition back on track, comes nearly three years after veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's overthrow in the first Arab Spring uprising.

Speaking from the presidency, Jomaa said he would make every effort to resolve the problems facing Tunisia.

"I will do my best, but I cannot perform miracles," he said in comments broadcast on national television.

He promised to form a cabinet that was "independent and neutral, bearing no animosity towards any movement or party."

The new premier, who is a relative political novice, will have to confront mounting social unrest and the persistent threat of jihadist violence, in a political climate that remains tense.

Larayedh's little-known industry minister, he was chosen during crisis negotiations last month as the consensus candidate to head a caretaker administration. He now has 15 days to form his cabinet, which must then be approved by the national assembly.

The press welcomed Larayedh's departure earlier on Friday, while stressing the challenges that Jomaa faces.

Shortly before resigning, Larayedh announced the suspension of a new vehicle tax that came into force this year, which has triggered strikes and nationwide protests, notably in the country's impoverished interior where the 2011 uprising began.

Poverty and unemployment were driving factors behind the revolution that unseated Ben Ali and remain pressing problems in Tunisia, amid lacklustre economic growth and an unemployment rate of more than 30 percent among school leavers.

Official figures published Friday showed a slight 1.7 percent in tourism receipts in 2013 from the previous year, with the crucial sector having yet to recover from the collapse it suffered after Ben Ali's downfall.

'The hardest part has just begun'

One reason for this is the persistent threat from armed jihadists in Tunisia, a key issue that Jomaa must confront.

The militants are blamed for a wave of violence since the revolution, including the assassination of two opposition MPs last year. Both those killings triggered major political crises and finally forced the departure of the Ennahda-led government.

Finally, the new premier must preside over presidential and parliamentary polls this year amid heightened mistrust between the majority Islamist party and its secular opponents.

"The hardest part has just begun," warned Tunisian daily Le Quotidien, saying Jomaa had inherited a "poisoned chalice."

"With uprisings in all corners of the country, an ailing economy and a precarious situation, the future government will have its work cut out," it said.

Ahead of its formation, the national assembly is pushing ahead with the adoption of a long-delayed new constitution, voting on it intensively article by article.

"We will work on it day and night," said parliament speaker Mustapha Ben Jafaa on Thursday evening. "Maybe we'll have a nice surprise and the constitution will be adopted on January 13," the eve of the revolution's anniversary.

The "general principles" and the essential "rights and freedoms" in the charter have already been approved, although other chapters, including on the functioning of public institutions, have yet to be ratified.

Lawmakers began examining those on Friday, starting with legislative powers.

There has been major progress on the issue of women's rights in particular. The assembly passed an article last week that enshrines gender equality, and another on Thursday that commits the state to promoting equal representation in elected bodies.

There had been fears among secular politicians, which Ennahda has been at pains to disavow, that it would seek to roll back the extensive rights that women have enjoyed in Tunisia since independence, compared with the rest of the Arab world.

The formation of an independent authority to fix a timetable for and to oversee fresh elections, which the Islamists had set as a condition for stepping down, finally took place on Wednesday.

The assembly still needs to pass a new electoral law.

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