TUNIS - Tunisia's Industry Minister Mehdi Jomaa, chosen late on Saturday as premier-designate to lead the country out of crisis, is a little-known newcomer with limited political experience.
TUNIS – Tunisia’s Industry Minister Mehdi Jomaa, chosen late on Saturday as premier-designate to lead the country out of crisis, is a little-known newcomer with limited political experience.
Parties picked Jomaa to head a government of independent figures aimed at rescuing the North African nation from months of festering political stalemate.
His political career began only in March this year when he was appointed to the cabinet.
According to a deal clinched between Tunisia’s main parties in October, the new premier now has 15 days to form a government of independents.
However, this timeframe has not been confirmed, and Jomaa himself has not yet made any public comment.
He also faces the weighty task of organising elections in 2014.
Jomaa is a 51-year-old engineer with no stated political affiliation. He is married and has five children.
He graduated from the National Engineering School of Tunis in 1988 before taking a higher degree in mechanics, his official biography published by state news agency TAP said.
He then went on to a career in the private sector, and headed a division of Hutchinson, the aerospace unit of French conglomerate Total.
He became industry minister following the formation in March of a new government by Ali Larayedh in the crisis that erupted following the assassination a month earlier of key opposition figure Chokri Belaid.
Since then, Jomaa has stayed aloof from the country’s 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 ouster nearly three years ago of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
But he has also taken the unpopular step of backing a decision to raise fuel prices next year.
Jomaa was chosen a day after the candidate agreed on by the outgoing Islamist-led government and the mostly secular opposition, 92-year-old Mustapha Filali, ruled himself out because of his age.
Ennahda has led a coalition government since Tunisia, the birthplace of the “Arab Spring”, held its first ever democratic elections in October 2011.
According to Mahmoud Baroudi of the Democratic Alliance, an opposition movement to Ennahda, Jomaa “is competent and independent enough to take on the post of premier”.
But another opposition party, Nidaa Tounes, which boycotted Saturday’s vote, rejected the idea of a premier who was part of the outgoing government.
Issam Chebbi, a leader of the party, said Jomaa would “not be a prime minister of consensus”.
One factor likely to go against him will be Jomaa’s lack of security experience, a key issue in a country facing a rising threat from extremist Islamists.
The opposition accuses the current government of failing to rein in militants who have stepped up attacks, and failing to deal with an economic malaise that has led to a rise in strikes and protests.
Under a roadmap brokered by mediators in October, Ennahda and the opposition pledged to negotiate an interim government of independents.
The interim premier should have been agreed on by early November, but the deadline has been pushed back repeatedly since then.
Unemployment and regional inequality were driving factors behind the popular uprising that unseated Ben Ali, inspiring protests across the Middle East and North Africa that toppled leaders in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
If Jomaa does succeed in forming a government of independents, the task of the new prime minister will be far from easy.
But the fact his roots are not hard set in the fractious world of Tunisian politics could in the end work in his favour.