(Adds details, quotes from Abdelkefi)
By Tarek Amara
TUNIS, Aug 18 (Reuters) - Tunisia’s prime minister accepted the resignation on Friday of interim finance minister Fadhel Abdelkefi over a conflict of interest in a judicial case, but said he had asked him to stay on until a replacement is found.
Abdelkefi is a key member of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s government, which is under pressure to carry out contentious economic reforms demanded by international lenders and cut its budget deficit.
Abdelkefi said he would continue in his post until an expected cabinet reshuffle. He faces a judicial hearing on Sept. 4.
The judicial case against Abdelkefi involves foreign currency payments that were investigated by Tunisia’s customs department. Abdelkefi heads the customs department in his position as acting finance minister.
It emerged earlier this week that he had been handed a fine and a suspended prison sentence, which he is appealing against.
His resignation comes at a sensitive moment as Tunisia tries to finalise its 2018 budget.
Abdelkefi announced that he was quitting on local radio, saying he wanted to defend himself as an ordinary citizen, not a minister.
“The country needs to put in place painful reforms, including the revision of subsidies, a review of the economic model, and privatisations of some public banks and companies, in order to give the Tunisian economy a confidence boost,” he told Tunisian radio station Mosaique FM.
“The next finance minister will need lots of patience, especially in the delicate area of public finances.”
An official source told Reuters that a partial cabinet reshuffle was expected next week.
Abdelkefi had been serving since last year as minister for development, investment and international cooperation in Chahed’s government.
He became acting finance minister in April, replacing Lamia Zribi who had faced criticism from political opponents over the sharp fall in the Tunisian dinar and slow progress in economic reforms.
Tunisia’s economy has struggled in the six years since the uprising that ended Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s autocratic rule, suffering from labour unrest and high unemployment.
While the North African state has been praised for its democratic progress, successive governments have failed to push through reforms needed to overhaul public spending. (Writing by Aidan Lewis; editing by Richard Balmforth and Toby Davis)