Although he declares himself an independent, Habib Jemli is considered very close to the Tunisian Islamic Ennahda movement. Born in 1959, and married with four children, Jemli is originally from Kairouan, a city located in the heart of Tunisia and home to the oldest mosque in the Maghreb. He is the right-hand man of Tunisia’s most significant Muslim party, as well as the third former Secretary of State for Agriculture to become Prime Minister following the footsteps of Habib Essid and Youssef Chahed. With his appointment, the country’s three major political offices – head of state, head of government and head of Parliament respectively – are in the hands of three politicians with ideas on civil rights deemed, at least according to Western standards, to be “conservative”. After the death of Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s secular leading light following the collapse of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, the country’s democratic transition seems to be heading in a decidedly Islamic direction. Ennahda’s leadership said in a statement that Jemli is a person without political affiliation “known for his competence, integrity and experience in administration”. However, the Muslim movement’s choice immediately sparked controversy.
Specialising in agricultural development and business management, Jemli already has some experience managing public affairs, albeit at a more junior level. In 1998, he headed the new quality control department within the Ministry of Agriculture. He left the public service in 2001 to join the private group “La Rose Blanche” and became Director of Studies and Development for “MediGrains”, the second national company specialising in the supply and distribution of fodder in Tunisia. In 2004, he became Deputy Director General of CMA, belonging to the same agri-food group, a position he would hold until 2011. After the revolution that overthrew Ben Ali’s regime, he held the position of Secretary of State for Agriculture between 2011 and 2014, under the governments of Hamadi Jebali and Ali Laarayedh. These were the unstable years of the so-called “troika”, when the country, led by the Republic’s Ennahda-Ettakol-Congress triumvirate, risked sinking into chaos and civil war. During that period Chokri Belaid, leader of the country’s left-wing party, was gunned down on 6 February, 2013 outside his home in the El Menzah neighborhood of Tunis, with Mohammed Brahmi, another member of the Tunisian left, being assassinated 25 July 2013. The perpetrators of the murders remain unknown, but the judiciary is investigating the alleged involvement of Ennahda’s “parallel” intelligence service.
The decision of the Ennahda Shura Council to propose Jemli as chief executive took many by surprise. The names circulating in the Tunisian press were quite different in stature: from the economist Marouane Abbassi, to the Governor of the Central Bank Fadhel Abdelkefi, up to the former Minister of Economic Development Mongi Marzouk. The choice of the Muslim party to opt for a man proven to be trustworthy, but with a comparatively modest CV (the French-language “Business news” website believe he would not have graduated and would have only obtained diplomas on camel breeding, and with little academic interest), has wrong-footed employers and unions, who would have liked a person able to handle the country’s top priority economic issues with greater ease. Jemli’s experience in the agricultural sector could be a good sign for the primary sector, especially for strengthening olive oil production and making up the wheat deficit. But Jemli will also have to convince the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union to provide essential financing to avoid a crash. Among the new government’s major challenges, the economy undoubtedly represents the most formidable obstacle, not to mention security considerations and the high risk of attacks particularly in this bedding-in period.
The “Jeune Afrique” website claims Jemli would have overseen the dismantling of the park ranger network when working at the Ministry of Agriculture, leaving the path clear for jihadist groups in the mountainous areas of the north-west. The accusation came from the former deputy of Ennahda, Fattouma Attia, who resigned in conflict with the “sheikh” of Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi’s management of the party, who by then had become Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (the Tunisian unicameral parliament). The former MP has publicly accused Jemli of being involved in a case of alleged corruption and nepotism in connection with a fish farm project in Zarzis, entrusted to the brother of the new prime minister. Attia then changed tack and toned down her statements, but this case still tarnishes the image of the “impartial” engineer detached from the parties which Jemli himself stands for. Moreover, Jemli’s choice to give an interview to satellite broadcaster “Al Jazeera”, a channel financed by Qatar, a key backer of the Muslim Brotherhood which has always supported the Ennahda movement, just 24 hours after receiving the mandate to form the government by President Saied is clear. Although Jemli professes to be independent of all political parties, including Ennahda, it is clear that he has limited room for manoeuvre and is, however, tied to the choices of the Islamic party.
Translation by Natalie Payne