Tunisia’s Jomaa, technocrat PM tasked with ending crisis

AFP-  Tunisian premier-designate Mehdi Jomaa, tasked with forming an interim government of technocrats and overseeing fresh elections, is a political newcomer who faces mounting social grievances and the persistent threat of Islamist violence.

He was picked on December 14 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.

The little-known former industry minister has since avoided making any public statements or appearances, with Tunisia’s political climate dogged by mistrust between the ruling Islamist party Ennahda and the mainly secular opposition.

Jomaa now faces the daunting task of forming a non-partisan government within 15 days and organising elections this year amid a rise in strikes and protests that often degenerate into violence, driven partly by the country’s economic malaise.

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.

After his appointment, Jomaa said his mission was to “favour the appropriate conditions for transparent and credible elections, the security of Tunisians and promote the economy with the aim of emerging from the crisis”.

His political career began only in March this year 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 new government of his predecessor Ali Larayedh, formed in March in the wake of the crisis caused by the assassination of key opposition figure Chokri Belaid a month earlier.

Since then, he has 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 this year, 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 jihadists.

The opposition repeatedly accused the Ennahda-led 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.

If Jomaa manages to form a new government of independents, it will be indirectly due to the political crisis triggered by the killing in July of opposition MP Mohamed Brahmi, which was also blamed on Islamist militants.

Another possible thorn in his side will come from the influential opposition party Nidaa Tounes, which rejected the idea of a premier from the outgoing government.

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

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

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