The appointment of Dr Najla Bouden Romdhane, as the first ever Prime Minister of Tunisia, on September 29, brought her the unique honour of being the first ever female Prime Minister in the North African expanse as well as in the whole Arab world.
Her ascent has also added yet another titillating plus to Tunisia, already known to have set in the Arab Spring, pioneered the first ever transition to democracy in the entire Arab world and garnered the mood and the movement that rocked the regimes in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
A female Premier similarly may stimulate the female struggle for more rights and equality in a rather quite patriarchal Arab world, that has already witnessed female participation and success for gender parity in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Lebanon and defeated the combined might of the fundamentalist religious lobbies and the dictatorship of the generals in Sudan.
Bouden has so far not been in any political limelight or shown obvious loyalties, but is rather known as a university academic with training, research and expertise in geophysics engineering. She completed her doctorate in Paris, working on earthquake engineering, focusing on the seismic hazards in her region and then worked as a professor at the National Engineering School at Tunis El Manar University.
In 2011, she was appointed as the director general to lead the quality management at the Ministry of Higher Education. In 2016, she was entrusted to help implement World Bank projects for Higher Education and Scientific Research in the same Ministry and continued with this assignment until her elevation as the Prime Minister.
Given her scientific research and management trove, she may have a precise and logical approach to the problems being faced, yet her actual leadership and authority in the system would be quite constrained by the powers concentrated by the President Kair Saied.
On July 25, he sacked the government of Hichem Mechichi, suspended the Parliament, ended the immunity of the parliamentarians and took over the Judiciary. Barely five days before inducting Dr Bouden, he further extended the suspension of the Parliament and expanded his legislative and executive powers even further. He also abolished the authority established in 2014 to watch over the constitutionality of various actions and started to rule by decrees.
Superimposed upon this is an excruciating economic challenge wrought by the rising debts, erosion of GDP that fell by 8.8 percent last year, receding foreign investment and rising unemployment surging to 17.8 percent by the first quarter of this year. This figure, even before the Covid crunch, had soared to 15 percent.
The GDP growth rate has plummeted to a paltry 0.3 percent while rising inflation has pushed about six hundred thousand Tunisians below the poverty line. The threat of a new Covid variant would further impact the country’s agriculture, industrial and tourism sectors. Dr Najla , however, announced plans to refurbish the economy and raise living standards.
Her success to stem the economic slide and improve livelihood is threatened essentially by the uncertainty about the continuity of the present system, contrived to become more Presidential just by the presidential decrees purported to be issued in the larger national interest. The President plans to hold a referendum to seek wider approval for this transformation.
But the Parliamentary Constitution altered by him had evolved through a long torturous path and had established the Parliament as the ultimate centre of the national discourse and power. It was also a first rare feat in the Arab world. The process commenced in February 2012, almost two years after the Spring emerged, weathered tensions among various factions particularly the Islamist and secular segments.
The Islamists insisted on firm guarantees for Sharia and Islamic activity that had been almost suppressed for decades while the seculars stressed to keep religion out of the state’s affairs. Promulgated finally in January 2014, it was hailed as a great success of the compromise and consensus, by the Tunisians as well as by the foreign observers. In 2019, it accomplished the first peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another as Tunisia elected its second President and second Parliament under this constitution.
How the Tunisians people, their suspended Parliamentarians, political parties and various pressure groups, would now react to the proposed referendum, would evidently determine the fate of this Presidential gamble and the image, popularity and legacy of the Premier he selected. Some civil society sectors have already denounced these Presidential steps as a drift to derail democracy and a pretext to purloin the absolute power.
There is also international concern at the arbitrary orchestration of the system. Angela Merkel, for instance, urged Tunisia to return to the consensus and the elected parliamentary practice. The success of her government thus would also depend upon the aid and loans from various foreign donors and the government’s ability to balance various conflicting interests of the donors like the western countries and Saudi Arabia.
IMF would likewise have its prescriptions and preconditions. In the regional context economic recovery and progress would also be influenced by the prognosis in Lebanon, crisis in the neighbouring Libya and access to the Red Sea routes while the national agriculture and industrial sectors would also be affected by the position and the pangs of the pandemic, its mutations and the emerging variants.
Dr Bouden’s experience and expertise of working with the World Bank can indeed contribute to her access and interaction with the donors. However, her actual contribution and legacy, may be linked to this vast and complex array of variable factors, far beyond her control, her very stature of being sought and selected for this challenge, has assured her this first unique niche in the history of the Arab World.