Jomaa to confront many problems amid new elections
TUNIS - Tunisia was waiting Friday for the president to task premier designate Mehdi Jomaa with forming a cabinet of independents to lead the country to fresh elections after the Islamist-led government finally quit.
Outgoing Prime Minister Ali Larayedh's resignation on Thursday, under an agreement to end months of political deadlock and 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.
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.
President Moncef Marzouki is now expected to ask the head of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party, Rachid Ghannouchi, to submit a candidate, with Jomaa nominated as the consensus choice to head the interim administration during crisis negotiations last month.
The little-known industry minister will have 15 days to form his cabinet, which must be then approved by the national assembly.
The Tunisian press welcomed Larayedh's departure with relief, while also stressing the challenges that his successor faces.
Shortly before his resignation, Larayedh announced the suspension of a new vehicle tax which came into force this year and 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.
Another key issue for Jomaa is the threat posed by armed jihadists, blamed for the assassination of two opposition politicians last year, which triggered the latest political crisis and finally forced the departure of the Ennahda-led government.
"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 anniversary of the revolution.
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 chapters on Friday, starting with legislative powers.
There has been major progress on the issue of women's rights, with the assembly passing an article last week that enshrines gender equality, and another on Thursday that commits the state to promoting equality of representation in elected bodies.
There had been fears among secular politicians, which Ennahda has been at pains to disprove, 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 oversee fresh elections, which the Islamists had set as a condition for stepping down, finally took place on Wednesday.