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Tunisian President Turns to a Woman To Emerge From Country’s Political Crisis
Tunisian President Kais Saied receives Najla Bouden Romdhane, who he named to form a new government, in Tunis, Tunisia on Sept. 29, 2021. (Tunisian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Tunisian President Turns to a Woman To Emerge From Country’s Political Crisis

Najla Bouden Romdhane, a 63-year-old geologist and university professor, has been appointed the country’s next prime minister

Tunisian president Kais Saied has appointed a 63-year-old female geologist and university professor as the country’s new prime minister, hoping the unprecedented progressive move will help end the two-month-old political crisis that has gripped his country.

“We will work together in the near future, armed with the stable and constant determination to combat the corruption and state of chaos that has been witnessed throughout the country in several government institutions,” Saied posted last week on the popular social media platform Facebook in announcing his appointment of Najla Bouden Romdhane as the country’s next prime minister.

The appointment of the first Arab woman as a prime minister in the Arab world took Tunisia and the Arab world by surprise. Even the president’s most vocal critics, leaders of the Islamic Ennahda Party, were unable to totally reject the decision.

Hayya al Omari, a member of parliament from the Ennahda party representing the Sidi Bouzid Governorate, which witnessed the launch of Tunisia’s Arab Spring in 2011, told the Media Line that the appointment of a woman is important but this assignment has come during an unlawful phase. “As women, we feel that even though this is an important decision, this is unacceptable because it was done outside the legal process. It is wrong for a woman to accept heading an illegitimate government,” she said.

Mohammad Hady ben Amro, director of the Radio Mines FM in the town of Gafsa, south of Tunis, was elated with the decision, despite the timing. He told the Media Line that the first-of-its-kind decision in the Arab world makes Tunisians proud.  

“This is a precedent in the Arab world, Tunis has always been a leader in all fields from flying planes and trains to this new decision of heading a government, it is a very good decision,” he said.

The decision by the Tunisian president on July 26 to sack the government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and to suspend the parliament has been popular in Tunisia because of the faith the public has in the elected president as an anti-corruption leader. While the president‘s decision has been criticized as being undemocratic, he has continued with his political moves due to the support of average Tunisians. However, that support has been fading as the president has monopolized power without appointing a functioning government. For example, last month Saied announced that he will rule by decree, which allows him to run the country while suspending part of the country’s constitution, and said he would work to change the political system.

While this decision by the president empowers women and strengthens their political participation, one needs to ask the question of whether this decision genuinely adds a new layer to the democratic process in Tunisia or is it simply a tactical decision aimed at strengthening the powers of the president

Nidal Mansour, head of the Amman-based Center For Defending Freedom of Journalists and a longtime observer of Tunisian politics, told The Media Line that the Tunisian president’s decisions represent two important accomplishments.

“He needed to form a government to fulfill his constitutional requirements and he wanted to regain popular support that was fading,” he said.

Mansour believes that choosing a woman to serve as prime minister is important, but what is needed is a program to overcome the crisis Tunis is facing, especially on the economic level, “while strengthening the democratic triumphs that have been achieved since the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution a decade ago.”

Mansour wonders whether an inexperienced person who will clearly be under the thumb of the president will be able to make these accomplishments. “We need to wait and see.”

Layla Naffa, head of the Arab Women Organization of Jordan, told the Media Line that Tunis has always been ahead of all other Arab countries in terms of its progressive view of women. “This is an extension to this environment and is a natural growth of this phenomenon. I have seen on our pan-Arab WhatsApp groups that a lot of women from Tunis have welcomed this decision,” she said.

Samia Melki, director of the Tunisian NGO Kadirat for Parity and Solidarity, told The Media Line that the appointment of a woman “has removed some doubts we as leftists and progressives had regarding some of the conservative statements made by President Saied.”

Melki admits that the current situation is difficult. “If this was a coup then it was a needed coup to get the country out of the situation it was in so long as it didn’t last. Tunis is finally out of that hell and Tunis will always be in a forward position of guaranteeing a woman’s rights and her dignity, and here is a decision of appointing the first woman in the Arab world as prime minister proof of that direction,” she said. She added that: “The power of the president is that he has strong popular support and trust in him and the fact that he is a man clean from corruption and supportive of freedom of expression, including from those who oppose him.”

Tagreed Odeh, program coordinator for the US-based Council on International Educational Exchange, told The Media Line that even though the appointment of a female geologist to head a new government is a first in the Arab world, it comes at a time of deep crisis in Tunisia. “While this decision by the president empowers women and strengthens their political participation, one needs to ask the question of whether this decision genuinely adds a new layer to the democratic process in Tunisia or is it simply a tactical decision aimed at strengthening the powers of the president,” she said.

Odeh, who is based in Amman, said that the answer to this question lies in how the new prime minister will conduct herself in her position. “I hope that this will be a successful experience for her and for the woman in the Arab world, many of whom have shown the ability, wisdom and the skill to acquire positions that have been a monopoly for men for too long,” she said.

Born in 1958 in the central Kairouan Governorate of Tunisia, Bouden Romdhane is a professor of higher education at the National Engineering School in Tunis, specializing in geoscience. A political outsider, Bouden Romdhane will leave her current role at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research implementing a $70 million program to improve employment chances for college graduates.

Since 2011, she has served as director-general in charge of quality at the Higher Education Ministry. She also held the position of head of the Purpose Action Unit in the same ministry.

Bouden Romdhane will be the fourth person to head the government since Saied took office in the autumn of 2019.

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