Tunisia Has the Arab World’s First Woman Prime Minister, But Not Everyone's Convinced

Any happiness at a progressive appointment is being undermined by concern among young people that the appointment of the little-experienced Najla Romdhane is being used as a cover to the president’s power grab.
October 8, 2021, 10:39am
People take part in a protest supporting Tunisian President Kais Saied, after he suspended parliament and assumed executive authority in July 2021​.
People take part in a protest supporting Tunisian President Kais Saied, after he suspended parliament and assumed executive authority in July 2021. Photo: Khaled Nasraoui/picture alliance via Getty Images

As Tunisia appoints its first woman prime minister – also a first in the Arab World – young people in the north African country are split over whether the move represents a positive step or an attempt by a growingly authoritarian president to protect his image. 

The appointment of Najla Romdhane by President Kais Saied comes amid growing domestic and international concerns surrounding the president’s announcement last Wednesday that he would give himself the power to rule by decree.

In July, President Saied suspended Parliament, fired former Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, and dismissed much of the Constitution to assume full executive power. Over the weekend, thousands gathered in the capital Tunis to protest the president’s constitutional shakeup, marking the first mass demonstrations since July. Some international human rights organisations are calling on the US to suspend aid to Tunisia in the wake of what many are calling a coup.

“We have taken these decisions…until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state,” Saied said in a recent televised interview. 

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With the North African nation being the birthplace of the Arab Spring, and a democratic experiment that has so far endured, many Tunisians fear the end of their short-lived freedom. 

While some feel fear, others see a reason to be hopeful. On Sunday, an estimated 3,000 people rallied in support of the president, fuelled by the prospect of change. “For the majority of us, President Saied’s decisions are a victory against the situation in the country,” Feten Sessi, a 27-year-old restaurant manager in Tunis, told VICE World News.

“We are confident in him, and we will show our support by peacefully marching.” 

Romdhane, 63, is a French-educated geologist and former university professor at The National Engineering School in Tunis, with experience at The World Bank. It is unlikely she will have as much power as previous prime ministers after Saied said last week that “during the emergency period, the government would be responsible to the president.”

“This is the first time in Tunisia’s history that a woman leads a government,” Saied – who also named a woman, Nadia Akacha, as his chief of staff – said at a meeting at the presidential palace last Wednesday. “We will work together with a firm will and determination to combat corruption and chaos that pervaded in many state institutions,” Saied said at a broadcasted meeting at the presidential palace last Wednesday.

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Within the country, there have been mixed reactions to Romdhane’s appointment and the president’s recent courses of action. More than 100 officials in Ennahda – the most powerful political party in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution – resigned over the weekend to protest the president’s power grab, calling it “a clear tendency towards absolute authoritarian rule and a flagrant coup against democratic legitimacy.” Some Tunisians are wary of Saied’s choice to elect a university professor with little political background or experience.

“From what I see in my social circles, many people are thrilled about the first woman being appointed as head of a government in the Arab World,” Khala, a law student in Tunis who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak openly, told VICE World News. “I think a minority might be questioning whether being a woman is simply a political choice from President Saied to show that he supports women, and that she might not have been chosen for her qualifications. It's very important for Saied to pick people who are independent, non-controversial, with no questionable history. More importantly, after the Mechichi conflict, someone who won’t go against his wishes. Personally, I believe [Saied] picked someone who won’t object much to him.”

“I am pleased about the appointment of the first female prime minister, but I hope that it is not just to exploit the image of women to mobilise a huge number of women in favor of President Saied,” Boudaya, a hair stylist in Tunis, said.

Over the past decade, Tunisia’s currency has lost half its value and the unemployment rate sits at 18 percent. Many Tunisians are optimistic about a new leader and national trajectory, while at the same time, remaining cautious of their president’s agenda. 

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“Right now we’re in a wait and see phase,” said Esra, a molecular biologist from Tunis. “I honestly have to say that we’re cautiously happy with [the President’s] decisions, like freezing the parliament. It needed to be done. That circus had to be shut down.” 

It’s unclear to what extent Romdhane will be involved in high-level decision-making in light of the president’s recent conduct. Last week, Tunisian and international human rights organisations released a joint statement warning of Saied’s “unprecedented confiscation of power” and that “any change in the political or constitutional framework must happen within the framework provided by the Constitution.”

“Dr Najla Bouden’s nomination to be prime minister cements Tunisia’s decades-long status as a regional leader in women’s rights,” Will Todman, Middle East and North Africa Fellow at CSIS, told VICE World News. “Many Tunisians are certainly celebrating her nomination and consider it recognition of the critical role women have played in Tunisia's post-revolutionary transition. 

“However, others are more skeptical of President Saied’s motives. Critics question his commitment to gender equality and believe Dr Bouden will have less power than previous prime ministers. During the presidential campaign, Saied opposed an inheritance law that would have enshrined equality between men and women. Saied has made the role of the prime minister less significant after expanding his own powers. Dr. Bouden is a political newcomer and does not have her own base of supporters. This means that she is unlikely to represent a rival center of power to Saied.” 

Saied voiced opposition to an inheritance law that would grant women’s equality in August, when he made a statement on National Women’s Day that equality in inheritance is “not innocent” and “the principle of inheritance in Islam is not based on formal equality but rather on justice and equity.”

Despite their president’s indefinite pocketing of power, for many Tunisians this is a stride towards equality, a beacon of hope for young women across the region, and a decision that could bring about real change. “We are very proud of the prime minister,” said 18-year-old Riahi, “and optimistic that she will be the saviour of Tunisia.”