Najla Bouden Romdhane has been designated as Tunisia’s first female Prime Minister. Romdhane a little-known university engineer who worked with the World Bank has been named by President Kais Saied nearly two months after he seized most powers in a move his foes call a coup.
Romdhane will take office at a time of national crisis with 2011-on democratic gains being questioned and as a major threat looms over public finances. She will be the country’s tenth prime minister since the 2011 uprising overthrew long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Romdhane is a former director at PromESsE, a higher education reform project, and has held senior positions at Tunisia’s higher education ministry. Originally from Kairouan, she is a French-educated geologist with a doctorate in geological engineering and is a lecturer at Tunisia’s national engineering school.
After anti-government protests on July 25, Tunisia’s President Saied removed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspended parliament, appointed himself as head of the executive authority until the formation of a new government, and lifted the immunity of politicians for 30 days, citing a provision in Tunisia’s 2014 post-revolution constitution.
Since then, he has been under growing domestic and international pressure to form a new government. Last week he brushed aside much of the constitution to say he could rule largely by decree.
Saied has named Romdhane under provisions he announced last week and has asked her to form a new government quickly, the presidency said on social media. Saied’s office published a video of him charging her with presenting a cabinet “in the coming hours or days”.
He repeatedly emphasized the “historic” nomination of a woman, calling it “an honour for Tunisia and a homage to Tunisian women”. Saied announced that the new government’s main mission would be to “put an end to the corruption and chaos that have spread throughout many state institutions”.
The new government should respond to the demands and dignity of Tunisians in all fields, including health, transport, and education, he added. Additionally, it will have to move quickly to seek financial support for the budget and debt repayments after Saied’s power grab put talks with the International Monetary Fund on hold.
The current situation
The country faces a deepening public finance crisis after years of economic stagnation were aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and political infighting. Tunisia is one of the worst-hit countries and its handling of the vaccination rollout has increased popular anger.
In 2011, the country was the only successful democratic transition after the Arab Spring protests. Nevertheless, since then many Tunisians have seen little improvement in their lives and have become disillusioned with a dysfunctional and corrupt political process.
Long-standing issues of unemployment, and crumbling infrastructure persist after 10 years of the Arab Spring. Particularly young people, who make up most of the population, face enormous difficulties when finding jobs and are desperate to make a living.
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Tunis, told Romdhane will be under considerable pressure as the whole functioning of the parliament is suspended. “Ordinarily under Tunisia’s constitutional system, the president appoints a prime minister, who then appoints members of her cabinet and this all has to be approved by Parliament,” Smith explained.
“But the president has suspended Parliament, so he’s appointed Najla Bouden Romdhane as prime minister, but there’ll be no parliamentary approval of this,” he added.
This move has come after four political parties announced a coalition to oppose President Saied’s move to seize governing powers on Tuesday 28. The Democratic Current party, Ettakatol (FDTL), the Republican Party and Afek Tounes stated the formation of the coalition to “express the refusal of the monopolisation of power”, voiced the secretary-general of the Democratic Current party, Ghazi Chawashi.
“This is not democracy. Yes, we can amend the Constitution, within a quiet dialogue, away from any crisis, with the participation of all parties. We need to evaluate everything, agree [on] everything, and go back to the people for a referendum on these amendments,” the secretary-general of the Republican Party, Issam Chebbi, denounced that the president cannot ignore growing public unease. “The president has given himself the right to do whatever he wants.”
While many Tunisians support Saied and see his actions as necessary to remove a corrupt political elite after years of economic stagnation, his critics from across the spectrum have said he is inexperienced and uncompromising.
Last week, other parties called for the end of what they name as a coup. In a joint statement, Attayar, Al Jouhmouri, Akef Tounes, and Ettakatol parties said that Saied’s move enshrined an absolute power monopoly. The leader of Tunisia’s powerful Ennahdha party, Rached Ghannouchi, echoed the sentiments but has not joined the latest coalition, and more than 100 senior members have resigned, accusing Ghannouchi of failing to form a united front to oppose Saied.
On Wednesday, the Ennahdha party asked the speaker of parliament to work towards resuming the assembly’s work, in what appears to be the first challenge to President Kais Saied’s decision to suspend parliament two months ago.
Separately, at least 73 out of 217 MPs from various parliamentary blocs have signed a statement rejecting Saied’s decision that he would rule by decree instead of via parliament and called for the resumption of parliamentary sessions in early October. They demand all parties to “unite” and “overcome differences to defend the values of the republic and democracy”.