As Tunisia’s democracy wobbles, an unexpected gain: first woman premier

Hassene Dridi/AP
Demonstrators gather at a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia, Sept. 26, 2021.The political crisis in the country has deepened since President Saied sacked the country’s prime minister in July, suspended parliament, and assumed emergency executive authority, in what his critics called a coup.

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Before being named last week as prime minister of Tunisia, the first woman in the Arab world to hold such a position, Najla Romdhane was a university lecturer in geology and manager of World Bank-funded projects at Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education.

Yet rather than a celebration of breaking the glass ceiling, the academic’s sudden rise to the prime minister’s office has taken on new meaning in the Arab world's only democracy. Her appointment has illustrated Tunisia’s uncertainty since President Kais Saied’s assumption of emergency powers in late July: teetering between hope for positive change and fears of a disastrous backslide into authoritarianism.

Why We Wrote This

Is there ever an odd time for progress? The symbolic victory embodied by Tunisia’s naming of a woman as prime minister comes amid a deepening battle over the quality of the nation’s democracy.

Polls show the populist president still has strong support, including for his suspension of the constitution. But frustration with the economy is building, and his political foes are joining forces.

“Right now, all that matters is whether you are with or against Kais Saied, and that is not good for Tunisia itself. The whole political process has become Saied-centered,” says Eya Jrad, assistant professor of security studies at the Tunis-based South Mediterranean University.
 
“Even the first woman prime minister is being scrutinized because she took on the task from Saied in a not-normal state of affairs.”

It was always going to be an uphill climb for the Arab world’s first woman prime minister.

If a failing economy and a pandemic weren’t challenge enough, Tunisian Prime Minister Najla Romdhane has been appointed just as the Arab world’s lone democracy is at a critical crossroads: a broken political system and a constitutional crisis precipitated by an aloof president wielding near-absolute power.

Rather than a celebration of breaking the glass ceiling, Ms. Romdhane's unexpected political ascent has taken on new meaning.

Why We Wrote This

Is there ever an odd time for progress? The symbolic victory embodied by Tunisia’s naming of a woman as prime minister comes amid a deepening battle over the quality of the nation’s democracy.

Her appointment has illustrated Tunisia’s uncertainty since President Kais Saied’s assumption of emergency powers in late July, teetering between hope for positive change and fears of a disastrous backslide into authoritarianism.

“Right now, all that matters is whether you are with or against Kais Saied, and that is not good for Tunisia itself. The whole political process has become Saied-centered,” says Eya Jrad, assistant professor of security studies at the Tunis-based South Mediterranean University.
 
“Even the first woman prime minister is being scrutinized because she took on the task from Saied in a not-normal state of affairs.”

A university lecturer in geology and manager of World Bank-funded projects at the Ministry of Higher Education, Ms. Romdhane was plucked from relative obscurity to head the government just last week.

Calling her appointment, “an honor for Tunisia and a homage to Tunisian women,” Mr. Saied said her government’s main task will be to “put an end to the corruption and chaos that have spread throughout many state institutions.”

The move came weeks after the United States, EU, and France pressured the populist elected president, who seized extra powers in an emergency measure on July 25, to name a government, reinstate parliament, and return Tunisia to a democracy. On Sept. 22, Mr. Saied suspended the constitution, and all executive and legislative powers now lie with the president, who rules by decree and is “assisted by the head of the government.”

Friendly face?

Yet it remains to be seen what, if any, influence Ms. Romdhane will have.

Some fear she will be little more than a friendly face for the West.

Ms. Romdhane has yet to give a speech or press interview, with Mr. Saied still dominating Tunisia’s airwaves – and garnering rave reviews.

Mr. Saied is continuing his outsider, rail-against-the-system campaign to crack down on corruption and bring political parties to account that catapulted him from obscurity to the presidency in the 2019 elections.

Tunisian Presidency/Reuters
Tunisia's president, Kais Saied, meets with newly appointed Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhane, in Tunis, Tunisia, Sept. 29, 2021.

Citing the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Saied on July 25 triggered an article in the constitution allowing for 30-day emergency rule. He shuttered parliament with tanks and dismissed the government.

When he finally suspended the constitution altogether last month, he unraveled a post-revolution political system the political system adopted after the fall of Tunisia's dictator in 2011, a pivotal event in the Arab Spring. Under this system, the president and a prime minister appointed by lawmakers shared executive powers. 

Yet widespread frustration among Tunisians with partisan deadlock, corruption, and leaders’ failure to improve their daily lives have translated into an outpouring of support for his consolidation of power. 

For many Tunisians, Mr. Saied is the savior of the country, not the destroyer of democracy.

“I’m happy with what the President has done so far, at least I can trust him,” says Jihane Rahali, an administrative assistant in Tunis, who says she grew tired of bickering MPs, political nepotism, and parties “looking after their own interests.”

“Kais Saied will improve the country step-by-step. I’m for the president to rule alone.” She pauses, adding, “but he should also be democratic.”

Popular mandate

Such expressions of support is why Mr. Saied has repeatedly told U.S. and EU officials that he has a popular mandate, if not a constitutional one, to push through reforms and combat corruption.

His claim is backed up by polling.

In late September, Tunis-based EMRHOD Consulting found that 79% of Tunisians approved of President Saied’s performance, slightly down from 82% in August.

A resounding 87% of those polled still support his July emergency measure; more than two-thirds, 69%, support his suspension of the constitution; and 68% considered Ms. Romdhane’s appointment a positive development.

In response to the question, “If presidential elections were held tomorrow, who would you vote for?” 71.2% named Kais Saied. The runner-up, at 21.5%, was, “I don’t know.”

But, cautions Columbia Global Centers Tunis director Youssef Cherif, “it is not clear whether this reflects Saied’s popularity or the unpopularity of his opponents.”

With the much-maligned parliament gone and his polarizing foil, the Islamist Ennahda party, neutralized, Mr. Saied is taking center-stage as the only actor in Tunisia – and with it, the responsibility to deliver.

Expectations are high.

Already this week, unemployed youths protested in Kaiouran and Tunis, calling on the president to give them jobs.

Should the president stumble or be slow to improve Tunisians’ daily lives going into winter, observers say the wave of frustration he has so expertly channeled may turn against him.

Economic pressures, too, are mounting.

Tunisia’s economy contracted 8.5% in 2020, and the private sector is only slowly re-opening after a devastating COVID-19 wave this summer. The Tunisian dinar is weakening, inflation is rising, and public debt has climbed to 88% of GDP raising fears Tunisia is rapidly approaching default.

Hassene Dridi/AP
Tunisians demonstrate in support of President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia, Oct. 3, 2021. Even as criticism of the president mounts, he remains highly popular, according to polls, and support for his power moves is high.

Yet Mr. Saied has not given the economy urgency or focus, nor has he appointed economic advisers or hinted at a plan to get the country back on track. Negotiations have stalled with the IMF for a $4 billion bailout package designed to help Tunisia with its budget deficit and upcoming loan repayments.

Instead, he preaches that only a new constitution that jettisons the parliamentary system for a strong presidency can allow Tunisians to bypass political deadlock, root out corruption, and transform the country for the better.

United in opposition

It is unclear how long Tunisians’ patience will last.

“The constitution is not the Koran, it can be amended at any time, but now is not the right time to do it,” says Hassib Abidi, an unemployed law school graduate and a Saied supporter who is optimistic, but increasingly “concerned.”

“The president hasn’t even started working on the economy,” says Mr. Abidi. “In the last two months, the economy didn’t take a single step forward. I am not satisfied because the real [issues] are not being addressed.”

Amid the waiting, Mr. Saied is amassing a growing list of enemies among Tunisia's political elite. These include leftists, secularists, civil society advocates, Islamists, former supporters of the deposed dictatorship, the business community, and unionists. 

“We remain confused because we have been waiting so long for the next steps and are concerned that the country can’t stand in a political vacuum and survive without a parliament or public institutions,” says Mounir Charfi of the Tunisian Observatory to Defend the Civil State.

The powerful trade unions, which helped oust Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali a decade ago, reversed their initial support of Mr. Saied’s measures, calling his suspension of the constitution a “danger to democracy.” Once-bickering parties are uniting to pressure the president.

“We thought that by triggering Article 80 of the constitution, the president would hold accountable everyone who committed wrongdoings and acts of corruption,” says Iheb Ghariani, co-founder of the Democratic Current, a liberal political bloc that backed Mr. Saied before allying with three other opposition groups last week.

“Instead, the president wants to impose his vision onto the political system. ... He is wielding absolute power and he is rejecting dialogue with everyone.”

Tweaking democracy

Mr. Saied appears set on drafting a new constitution largely by himself and putting it up for a national referendum while his popularity is still sky-high.

Yet the prospect of another new constitution, and a struggle over a more centralized political system, may, observers say, be a positive opportunity for Tunisians to make democracy work better for the people.

“Rather than the saving of Tunisia’s democracy or the end of it, this may be something in between,” says Mr. Cherif. 

“This may be a case where democracy has revealed where it doesn’t work and if this is a real democracy – then it will correct itself through street movements, through civil society, through dialogue, and economic and political actors expressing their voices on and off the street.”

Mr. Saied, meanwhile, is boasting about the size of his rallies. He said 1.8 million supporters turned out in Tunis and outlying towns last Sunday (15% of the population), while Reuters reported it was more like 8,000.

On Tuesday he released a video of himself and Ms. Romdhane in which he touted the turnout. She didn’t get a word in.

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