In this article, we take a look at President Saied’s decree to remove the Ennhada government and to appoint little-known Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhane. We will then examine what this means for the trajectory of Tunisian democracy, and the impact of the first female Prime Minister.
Tunisia Post-Arab Spring
In 2011, a series of protests swept across Northern Africa in an attempt to overthrow the region’s authoritarian regimes. These anti-government movements went through Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain. Now, in 2021, only one of these countries had achieved Democracy: Tunisia.
Also known as the Jasmine Evolution, the protests- in response to high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, and low political freedoms- led to the ousting of then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, in favour of a democratic system. However, can Tunisia truly claim the title of the only nation to come out of the Arab Spring as a Democracy?
To answer this question, we need to take a look at the President’s actions now in 2021. President Kais Saied ousted the government led by the moderate Islamist party, Ennhada, just this July. His opposition has since labeled this act a coup. Largely ignoring the constitution, Saied took the decision to rule by decree and gave himself full control of the government during this emergency period. September saw the answer to the question on everyone’s mind: Who will be the next Prime Minister? The answer- Najla Bouden Romdhane.
Who is Najla Bouden Romdhane?
Until this announcement, Romdhane was little known. By trade, she is a geology professor for the National School of Engineers in Tunis. Before her appointment to Prime Minister, in 2011, she was appointed Director-General at the Ministry of Higher Education. She was then assigned by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research to the World Bank where she was involved in programme implementation. The consensus seems to be that she does not have any political affiliations.
What does this mean for Tunisian Democracy?
There is talk that members of parliament are looking to challenge the legality of the government appointment given the chamber’s lack of consent in light of Saied’s suspension. One such advocate is former government minister Samir Dilou. Dilou in particular has called Romdhane’s appointment “illegal”.
Given Tunisia’s current political state, the new Cabinet will have to work even harder to overcome any accusations of political illegitimacy. More specifically, the country is going through an unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak- of all strains and in most states. The pandemic has further pushed the country towards bankruptcy. Years of economic stagnation, as well as political infighting, have made the prospect of overcoming this crisis quite difficult. This new government, therefore, has to contend with many issues, as well as an impatient civil society. How long then will this new Romdhane-Cabinet last?
It is important to note that this Cabinet has a hypothetical gun to its head. Saied has announced, alongside the appointment of the new Prime Minister, that the government will be responsible to him and that he will in fact have the power to select and fire cabinet members at will. There is definitely an argument to be made that this level of accountability is sure to motivate the government to act and may be more successful in getting Tunisia out of its present situation. However, this does bring up concerns with regards to transparency and democracy. The key issue here is that the government is accountable to President Saied, and not to the Tunisian people. Will simple opposition to Saied and his goals be cause for removal from Cabinet? Or will Cabinet selections and removals be purely based on merit and performance? Only time will tell, but one thing history has consistently proven is that a single individual should never carry too much power. Moreover, by virtue of allotting an excessive amount of power to an individual, we are already blurring the lines of democracy.
What does this mean for women?
An obvious question then becomes, What does this appointment mean for women? Romdhane is the first female Prime Minister of Tunisia. This should be a game-changer, not only for Tunisian women but for women across the Arab world. Young girls will now see a woman in one of the most powerful and influential positions within a country. This stands to have a massive impact on future generations. However, we should first consider a couple of subsidiary questions.
Is Saied using the appointment of a woman to distract from his use of decrees?
It may be possible that President Saied is using this appointment as a smokescreen. While everyone is commending his liberal decision to appoint a woman to lead the Tunisian government, he is in fact ignoring the constitution. Through breaking grounds in women’s rights, the focus is shifted away from his acts of unilateralism and towards this commendable act. Ultimately, we need to consider the intentions of the President and whether or not this is an act of tokenism.
Is it a coincidence that the first female Prime Minister is the first of her kind to have decreased power?
We have already mentioned that this will be the first Prime Minister with decreased power and independence to rule. Romdhane will have to report more to Saied than any of her predecessors. Is this purely a coincidence? Or did Saied choose to restrict her power due to her gender? Was his intention to rather restrict the next Prime Minister’s power, and so thought it would be easier to do so with a woman in the role?
There is no obvious answer to these questions. As time passes and we learn more about the dynamic between President and Prime Minister, we stand to learn more and potentially stand to get the answers to these burning questions.
Where will Tunisia go from here?
Ultimately, Romdhane’s success is largely dependent on her Cabinet’s ability to address the multitude of challenges outlined earlier that Tunisia faces. If things do not go according to plan, and Saied quickly removes Romdhane, or makes successive shuffles within the Cabinet within the upcoming months, I think this will go a long way towards undermining democracy in the country. In other words, if Saied begins to act exclusively in unilateralism, we may see the Tunisian and global communities start to lose faith in the state’s democracy.
Stephanie is the Assistant Editor at the Journal of Political Risk. She has a B.A. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics and an Honours degree in Justice and Transformation from the University of Cape Town. She is currently pursuing her MPhil in Public Law, focusing on a gendered analysis of transitional justice mechanisms. She has also contributed as a member of the research team for the South African Medical Research Council, focusing on the National Health Insurance bill.