President Kais Saied named a geologist with little government experience as Tunisia’s first woman prime minister on Wednesday amid a crisis following his seizure of powers and with public finances close to breaking point. He asked Najla Bouden Romdhane, a little-known professor of geophysics who implemented World Bank projects at the education ministry, to form a government as quickly as possible. The move prompted a surge in Tunisian bond prices.
Elected in 2019, Saied has been under domestic and international pressure to name a government after he dismissed the prime minister, suspended parliament and assumed executive authority in July in moves his foes call a coup. Last week, he suspended most of the constitution, saying he could rule by decree during an “exceptional” period with no set ending, calling into question democratic gains after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab Spring protests. Speaking in an online video, Saied said Bouden’s appointment honoured Tunisian women and asked her to propose a cabinet in the coming hours or days “because we have lost a lot of time”.
The new government should confront corruption and respond to the demands and dignity of Tunisians in all fields, including health, transport and education, he added. Women have only rarely held senior political roles in Arab countries. In Tunisia, Saied has also appointed a woman, Nadia Akacha, as chief of staff, his closest and most powerful aide. Bouden is likely to have less direct power than previous prime ministers under the 2014 constitution after Saied said last week that during the emergency period the government would be responsible to the president.
Tunisia faces a looming crisis in public finances after years of economic stagnation were aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic and political infighting. There was no direct reaction from the labour union or political parties to Bouden’s appointment. However, the biggest party in the elected parliament, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, urged its leader the parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi to resume the assembly’s work in defiance of Saied.
President Kais Saied’s appointment of Najla Bouden Romdhane as Tunisia’s first female prime minister has been met with mixed reactions and could be interpreted in at least two ways. First, critics of Saied — who saw the troubling political development in July when the President suspended parliament, fired the prime minister and cabinet as well as invoke emergency powers to write legislation, enact political reforms, propose constitutional amendments, and suspend parts of the Constitution — see the appointment of a non-career politician (one that is considered friends with the President and possessing no real political experience at the national level) as a smokescreen.
Given her lack of experience, Najla Bouden Romdhane is considered by many to be a puppet to serve Mr Saied’s bidding and manage the day to day running of the government without the ability to check his worst impulses. Second, the appointment of the country’s first female Prime Minister is undoubtedly a great step for women in the region. For one, Tunisia has continued to lead the region in issues of women’s rights, implementing family laws in 1956 that stopped polygamy and allowing women to file for divorce, a rarity in the Middle East and North Africa.
Even though women won the right to vote as far back as 1957 and could run for office by 1959, the country has not had a woman in one of its highest political offices – the office of the Prime Minister. Away from the symbolic value of her appointment, it is hoped that Romdhan’s time in office as PM would help revive the country’s fragile economy. It should be recalled that before Saied’s cabinet dissolution, Tunisia’s debt to GDP reached 88% by year-end 2020 and pandemic-laden unemployment numbers stood at 36%.
Following a raft of ill-advised economic policies, government and the country’s failure to secure an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to cover its budget deficit, Tunisia was downgraded by Fitch to a ‘B-’ with a negative outlook. However, with the appointment, the market seems to be responding positively, taking away some of the uncertainty around the political climate, easing international pressure following Saied’s autocratic moves; with that bond prices received a surge and hopefully, one of North Africa’s democratic standard-bearers can start plotting a path to some form of normalcy.