Tunisia’s President Kais Saied announced on September 29 that Najla Boudan Romdhane will be the country’s new Prime Minister, tasked with forming a government that will help navigate the political and economic crisis gripping the nation. In his televised meeting with Romdhane, Saied affirmed the significance of her appointment as the first woman Premier in Tunisia’s history, and the region’s.
However, while Saied’s decision has been lauded in some quarters as a stellar step in the progress of women’s rights in the Arab world, the reality is that it is the exact opposite.
Saied has been under significant international pressure to announce a Prime Minister and present a political roadmap since he suspended Parliament under a dubious interpretation of Article 80 of Tunisia’s constitution.
According to Article 80, the President is allowed to declare a state of emergency after consulting with the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament, while Parliament itself “is to remain in permanent session throughout the emergency period.” Saied did neither and proceeded to sack the Prime Minister and suspend Parliament indefinitely. He then went on to assume executive, legislative, and judicial powers as he lifted immunity from members of Parliament and began putting the most vocal of those opposing the coup before military courts.
Saied has been reluctant to appoint a Prime Minister despite multiple visits by European and American delegations asserting that he must do so.
Saied, who often suggested publicly that the country’s political system should be changed to equip the President with greater powers, has been reluctant to appoint a Prime Minister despite multiple visits by European and American delegations asserting that he must do so.
Saied was visited by the US Undersecretary of State Joey Hood on August 13. He was then visited by a delegation from the US Congress on September 5. Where Saied might have hoped to rely on France and other international allies to help ease the pressure, he instead found himself the subject of a joint G7 declaration calling for a “return to a constitutional order,” implying a rejection of Saied’s assertions that he has been operating within the constitution.
Furthermore, Deputy President of the EU Josep Borrell also visited Saied on September 10. Borrell subsequently released a statement in which he affirmed that he had informed Saied of the EU’s “apprehension” and the need to “restore Parliamentary activity.” That same night, the Tunisian Presidency issued a scathing rebuke on social media, insisting that “it would not accept being lectured as if it were a pupil.”
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At home, Saied has found that his own political allies who, while continuing to support his decision to suspend Parliament, have also been increasingly critical of his refusal to appoint a government and engage in a national dialogue. At the same time, political parties which were the loudest advocates of Saied’s suspension of Parliament, such as Tayyar al-Dimoqrati, have become alarmed at the President’s actions to the extent that they have set up a “Committee for the Defense of Democracy” to pressure him into dialogue.
Finally, the powerful trade unions that initially welcomed the overthrow of Parliament have now shown greater concern about Saied’s leadership as they push for a National Dialogue which they wish to lead – instead of Saied – as they did in 2013.
On September 22, Saied denounced his critics and former allies, and defiantly announced that he would rule by presidential decree. He suspended the constitution and declared that he would be the head of the government, pass laws, and make decisions “with a committee that would be formed by decree” and would help him to implement political reforms. He asserted that a government would be established imminently, whose duties would be set by the Presidency’s emergency powers; not the constitution.
Saied has sought to alleviate international pressure and deflect attention from his power grab by appointing a woman Prime Minister.
It is in this context that the “first woman Prime Minister of the Middle East” has been appointed. After gutting the position of all powers and authority, and rendering it effectively irrelevant, Saied has sought to alleviate international pressure and deflect attention from his power grab by appointing a woman Prime Minister. In designating Romdhane as a premier, Saied aims to retain his control while distracting from his illegitimate maneuvers by transforming the image of his coup from an aggressive power grab, to one of “revolutionary progress.” It is also worth mentioning that Romdhane is a geologist with little government experience.
Under Saied’s emergency powers, Najla Boudan Romdhane will have no authority to appoint ministers, nor to form a government, nor to enact policy, nor to make decisions to tackle the political and economic crises. Romdhane will actually have no ability to act as a “Prime Minister,” and in the words of constitutional expert Muna Karim, “is [therefore] more of an assistant to the President . . . whose powers are no more than to implement the President’s orders.”
Moreover, Romdhane has been assigned as “Prime Minister” of a government that has been appointed outside of the constitution and democratic process, making her complicit in Saied’s overthrow of the democratic transition. Thus, the first woman Prime Minister in the Arab World is appointed by a coup, to a position stripped of all powers by the coup, and who will be expected to obey orders from the coup to sign off on the entrenchment of the coup against the democratic institutions of Tunisia.
It is for this reason that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel made no reference to the “first woman Prime Minister” in her recent phone call to Kais Saied. The readout of the phone call, published by the German Embassy in Tunisia, suggests Merkel ignored the optics of the appointment of Najla Boudan Romdhane. In the German version of the readout, Merkel instead implicitly criticized Saied by praising Tunisia’s “democratic achievements in the past” (suggesting the country is no longer democratic under Kais Saied), and then reiterated the “necessity for the return of Parliamentary activity.” The version made public by the Tunisian Presidency omitted the Chancellor’s comments.
Romdhane is being touted as “the first woman Prime Minister” in the Arab world, even as the circumstances of her appointment clearly suggest otherwise.
Yet, Saied’s PR move has succeeded to some extent. Romdhane is being touted as “the first woman Prime Minister” in the Arab world by numerous observers and media outlets, even as the circumstances of her appointment and realities of her position clearly suggest otherwise. The matter of Saied’s disparaging affront to Tunisia’s women by suggesting their image, rather than the substance of their contribution, is what matters in politics appears to have been lost in the discussion.
Kais Saied had two previous opportunities to appoint Prime Ministers with substantial powers. In the first instance, he chose a businessman, Ilyas al-Fakh Fakh, who was later brought down on accusations of corruption. In the second instance, he chose a seemingly pliant career bureaucrat, Hichem al-Mishishi. The thought of selecting a woman when the position had power did not appear to be something Saied ever considered. This reality compounds the affront of Saied’s appointment of Romdhane, in that her primary utility in Saied’s eyes is not her talent or capabilities, but that she will obey orders while acting as a buffer against international criticism of his overthrow of the democratic process.
Therefore, Najla Boudan Romdhane is not the first woman Prime Minister in the region, and to assert this is an insult to the women of the Arab world who want, and deserve, to be treated with greater respect than Saied has shown Romdhane.