Tunisian Politics: First Woman Prime Minister of the Arab World
By: Leyelle Mosallam / Arab America Contributing Writer
Amid political tension in Tunisia, President Kais Saied appointed Najla Bouden Rhomdane as the first female Prime Minister in Tunisia and the Arab world. Romdhane was appointed prime minister after President Saied dismissed her predecessor and suspended parliament in July. While Rhomdane’s appointment is positive for many women in the Arab world, Tunisia has been going through a political crisis that has triggered skepticism around Rhomdane’s appointment.
Romdhane is expected to work with President Saied to dispel “corruption” in parliament, however Rhomdhane might not have as big of a role in Tunisia’s parliament as one might think.
“I am honored to be the first woman to hold the position of prime minister in Tunisia. I will work to form a coherent government to face the country’s economic difficulties, fight corruption, and respond to the demands of Tunisians regarding their natural rights to transport, health, and education.”Najla Bouden Rhomdane
On July 25th, 2021, Tunisian president, Kais Saied, dismissed the country’s prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, and suspended parliament for 30 days. While his political opponents called it a “coup”, Saied believes his actions were necessary, after the country has been experiencing demonstrations against the Tunisian parliament for poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has worsened the country’s plummeting economy. President Saied further supported his decision by citing article 80 of the Tunisian constitution, which claims that in the event of “imminent danger”, the president has full authority to make any decisions they deem necessary to assist the country.
Many Tunisians support President Saied’s decision, as parliament has failed to address the country’s crippling economy and its people. However, some fear that his decision could lead to an authoritarian regime. Whether President Saied’s decision was a “coup” or something worth celebrating, polarization among the Tunisian people and lack of confidence in parliament’s political parties have driven Tunisia into a democratic crisis.
Unlike its neighboring countries, Tunisia was the only nation that was able to successfully transition into a democracy after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and protests. Tunisians fought hard to eliminate an oppressive dictatorship and replace the regime with democratically elected leaders that will improve their living conditions. Tunisia developed a semi-presidential system, where the country would have a prime minister elected by the parliament, which consists of a 217-member national assembly made of multiple political parties, and a president elected by its citizens.
Tunisia was once considered the only flourishing Arab democracy of the MENA region, however, the current political system has not led to a striving democracy that Tunisians have once hoped for. With an economic crisis, high unemployment rates, poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and persistent tensions between the president and the national assembly, Tunisians believe that their living conditions have not improved since 2011, and are urging for yet another reform to their political system.
Since the beginning of President Saied’s term, he has expressed his dislike for political parties, accusing parties as corrupt on multiple occasions. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Tunisia has experienced failed delivery of adequate public services to its people and failed attempts to address its country’s crippling economy, which many Tunisians blame political parties for these pressing issues. Given President Saied’s disinterest in political parties, and the popular belief that political parties have failed to act in the interest of their people, it is no surprise to see proposals from the president diminishing parliaments worth, nor is it a surprise to see such popular support from Tunisian citizens for such proposals.
By citing article 80 of the constitution, President Saied has promised to deliver reforms to the current political system, one that will convey a more democratic system. Many Tunisians believe that President Saied will deliver his promise. However, some politicians are skeptical and argue that Saied is trying to change Tunisia’s political system from a parliamentary system to a presidential system, and are worried that this one-man rule could potentially lead to an authoritarian regime.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN FOR TUNISIA’S NEW PRIME MINISTER?
Tunisia’s new prime minister, Najla Romdhane, was appointed office in a time of crisis. Although her appointment is considered historic, Romdhane is facing mixed feelings from Tunisians.
Romdhane has little to no political exprience. She is a professor of geophysics at the National Engineering School in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, and served as the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research where she worked with the World Bank to implement programs to support modernizing Tunisia’s higher education system. While some are hoping that appointing a female prime minister can be a symbol of female empowerment for the Arab world, others are worried that President Saied will use her little political experience to his advantage.
When Saied appointed Romdhane, he appointed her by “decree”, meaning that in times of an emergency, the president has the power to appoint the prime minister, but the decree also means that power will still remain in the hands of the president, which will limit Romdhane’s influence as a political figure.
By appointing a woman, many Tunisians including politicians around the world, believe that this was a strategic move by Saied to distract his opposers and the international community away from his power grab that took place this past July, and instead receive praise for his decision to appoint a female prime minister.
President Saied said during Romdhane’s appointment that they will work together “to combat corruption and chaos that pervaded in many state institutions” however there is still no clear agenda to achieve this plan.
ARE THERE ANY POSITIVES?
Opinions vary among the Tunisian population and the Arab world about the new female prime minister.
This is the first time in history that a woman will lead a government in Tunisia, and the Arab world. While women in the Arab world generally hold little to no power in government and don’t have any say in their country’s political decisions, this appointment is empowering for females who wish to be a part of politics.
However, regardless of gender, Tunisians are looking for a parliament that will take their grievances seriously. Whether Rhomdane is the right person to respond to the adversary in Tunisia, is something Tunisians are skeptical about.
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