x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Ali Larayedh to head Tunisia's new government

Controversial interior minister faces task of easing public and opposition anger

Tunisia's controversial interior minister was chosen to lead a new government yesterday, filling a void left when prime minister Hamadi Jebali stepped down earlier this week.

Ali Larayedh was picked after a lengthy meeting on Thursday of the 130-member shura council of the moderate Islamist group Ennahda, which as the largest bloc in the interim parliament was tasked with putting forward a candidate.

The appointment is designed to quell the political unrest that has worsened since the assassination earlier this month of a secular opponent of the government, which intensified calls from the opposition for the Ennahda-dominated cabinet to be replaced.

Mr Jebali had struggled against the party, of which he is general secretary, in trying to appoint a government of technocrats, and stepped down when that plan failed.

Mr Larayedh, who met the president, Moncef Marzouki, yesterday to formalise his new post, faces tough challenges within his own party and in the simmering country.

As the head for more than a year of a ministry frequently cited as being badly in need of reform, he may also struggle to win the support of large chunks of the population and media, who have been searingly critical of his work.

"There's a mixed picture on the human-rights record from this minister," said Amna Guellali, of Human Rights Watch. "Under Ali Larayedh, there were several incidents that posed a series of concerns." Ms Guellali singled out the events of April 9 last year, when police fired on unarmed protesters in the capital.

More recently, in November, police were criticised for firing birdshot into crowds of demonstrators in the rural town of Siliana, leaving several people at risk of blindness. The ministry has also been criticised for stalling reform of the security forces.

Under the rule of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, pushed out by a popular uprising two years ago, police were criticised for unlawful detentions and rights abuses. Their behaviour was frequently cited by demonstrators as a reason for their activism. Legally, the police - and other branches of the security forces - answered directly to the president under Ben Ali, a rule which many say must now be changed.

But the absence of a systematic reform has left the role of the police confused, and some fear that they have been politicised. A crowd of 5,000 members of security forces demonstrated in January, calling for a new legal framework to determine their role and also to protect them from abuse and assault. Police forces have frequently clashed with fervent anti-Ben Ali groups called the Leagues to Protect the Revolution, although both sides assert that the other is to blame for the violence.

"Larayedh, get out," chanted thousands of people at the January demonstration, according to local media reports.

The nature of the government Mr Larayedh will lead is also not clear. He will face pressure from the opposition, which blames Ennahda for the killing of leftist Chokri Belaid by an unknown gunman, to take Ennahda figures out of key ministries.

Insiders think Mr Larayedh will seek to form a compromise cabinet with a mix of technocrats and political leaders.

"We will start consultations to form a new government ... a government of all Tunisians," Mr Larayedh said in brief remarks after meeting President Marzouki yesterday.

A spokesman for Mr Marzouki said the president had asked him to form a government within 15 days, and to "do so as quickly as possible because the country cannot wait any longer".