Tunisia’s president consolidates power with new prime minister

By James Moules

DESPITE being a relatively small nation on the north African coast, Tunisia was the starting point for the wave of protests across the Middle East in 2011 known as the Arab Spring.

While they were initially hailed with great optimism for a future in which the voices of the people were truly represented, many uprisings and protest movements turned sour.

Libya and Syria ultimately descended into civil war and chaos, while the democratically elected president of Egypt Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup after just a year in office.

Despite this Tunisia was often held up as the only nation that made gains from the Arab Spring, having held several democratic elections for both its president and parliament and even drafted a new constitution after concerted efforts domestically and internationally.

Its current president, Kais Saied, was elected in 2019, topping the first round of voting with 18.40 per cent of votes in a large field and winning the second round runoff against Nabil Karoui with 72.71 per cent.

On July 25, 2021, President Saied suspended the nation’s parliament for 30 days in a move that his political opponents decried as a coup attempt. Nonetheless, Saied claimed that his actions were constitutional.

[READ MORE: British MPs voice support for Tunisian democracy following Kais Saied’s suspension of parliament]

The move came as the country was facing several domestic crises – not least the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On August 24, Saied renewed the suspension of parliament for a further month, which deepened concerns that the move represented a power grab on the part of the president.

Saied appointed Najla Bouden Romdhane to serve as prime minister on October 11, making Tunisia the first Arab country to have a woman as its head of government.

However, Bouden Romdhane only has limited political experience, having served in the Ministry of Higher Education previously.

Charles Tripp, professor of Middle Eastern and North African politics at SOAS, University of London, told Redaction Report that her appointment by Saied is unlikely to quell the claims of a coup.

He said: “It seems that Saied wanted to appoint as prime minister someone who had no power base in the country and would therefore not be able to stand up to him.

“In Najla Bouden, he has chosen a professor of geology who has served in the Ministry of Higher Education, but has no political connections or party to back her, nor political or economic experience of note.

“The fact that he appointed the first woman prime minister of an Arab state has caught world attention and may have been part of the theatrical presentation of the regime. She has little executive power as this lies with the president and the senior ministers – all men.”

Saied sacked the previous prime minister Hichem Mechichi when he suspended the nation’s parliament.

Since then, the president has ruled the country through decrees, and the new prime minister is expected to have significantly less power than her predecessors.

“Saied’s appointment of Najla Bouden Romdhane at prime minister will convince many that the July dismissal of the government and suspension of parliament was indeed a coup: the three most important ministers in the government – Interior, Finance and Foreign Affairs – had already been appointed by decree by Saied many weeks ago, the prime minister has been appointed by Saied and is answerable only to him.

“For the critics of Saied this is not a new government at all, but one that reflects the determination of the President to keep sole control of things.

“So the opposition will continue and, depending on how well or badly Saied and his appointees deal with the Covid situation but also the economic crisis, this opposition will grow, and, if it involves organisations such as the UGTT – the powerful Trade Union confederation – it will be significant.”

Featured Image: U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa @Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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