BEIRUT

Middle East

Choice of new Tunisia PM causes hope, concern

In this Nov. 7, 2013 photo, Mehdi Jomaa answers questions during a presser held in Tunis, Tunisia. A forum of political parties chose the industry minister as Tunisia's next prime minister, set to replace the Islamist-led government with technocrats in what's been a faltering transition to democracy. (AP Photo)

TUNIS: A deal naming a premier-designate was met on Sunday with both hope and apprehension in Tunisia, which has been in the grip of political crisis for months.

Industry Minister Mehdi Jomaa was named late Saturday by the Islamist-dominated ruling coalition and opposition to form a government of independents to end the stalemate caused by the killing of leftist MP Mohamed Brahmi in July.

Houcine Abassi, head of the powerful UGTT union that has mediated talks, said he would announce the date for Jomaa's government to take office within days.

"On Wednesday we are going to announce the date of the inauguration of the new government," Abassi said.

Jomaa's nomination followed months of talks between moderate Islamists Ennahda and the mostly secular opposition, after the two sides agreed to negotiate an interim government under a roadmap brokered in October.

The transition still faces challenges, despite Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh's pledge to step down.

Ennahda has said the interim government due to lead Tunisia to fresh elections in 2014 can only come to office with a new constitution, a work in progress for two years, and a new electoral law.

But the local press was bullish about Jomaa's appointment, with the Adhamir daily calling it a "new hope".

"The choice of Mehdi Jomaa shows our great people is capable of resolving its disagreements with dialogue," Adhamir said.

"Finally, the Mehdi has arrived," the Attounsia daily wrote, making a pun on Jomaa's first name, which translates roughly as the "chosen one" in Arabic.

However, daily La Presse wrote the nomination came "at the end of a desperate marathon marked by twists and turns".

When the 21 parties taking part in the talks to choose an interim premier failed to reach a consensus on Saturday, the question was put to the vote.

One part of the opposition, notably the Nidaa Tounes party, which boycotted the vote, rejected the choice of a member of the outgoing cabinet.

Some saw the lack of consensus as proof the Islamists do not plan to relinquish power.

"Several weeks' work has ended in a negative result, the troika (of the ruling coalition, headed by Ennahda) repeated its errors and chose a minister from the outgoing government," Nidaa Tounes spokesman Ridha Belhaj told Mosaique FM radio.

"It is true that he is a technocrat, but everyone knows he is close to Ennahda."

Nidaa Tounes quit the talks even before Jomaa's nomination.

Ennahda head Rached Ghannouchi hailed the appointment as a "success for democracy in Tunisia", adding the country would become the first in the region "to be a democratic model".

Jomaa, a relative unknown, is a 51-year-old engineer with no stated political affiliation.

He became industry minister following the formation in March of a new government by Larayedh in a crisis that erupted following the assassination a month earlier of key opposition figure Chokri Belaid.

Jomaa's nomination came as Tunisia prepared to mark Tuesday's third anniversary of the beginning of the uprising that toppled long-term dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The protests were sparked by a young street vendor's immolation in the impoverished central town of Sidi Bouzid, and fanned by economic desperation and repression.

 

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