Tunisia's first woman prime minister raises spirits despite power grab

FILE PHOTO: Newly appointed Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhane poses for a picture during her meeting with Tunisia's President Kais Saied, in Tunis, Tunisia September 29, 2021. Tunisian Presidency/Handout/File Photo via REUTERS

TUNIS (Reuters) - Nurse Amina Ben Hammou beamed with pride when President Kais Saied named Najla Bouden Romdhane as Tunisia's first woman prime minister on Wednesday.

"I am optimistic about a woman being prime minister, so let's try it," she said.

"And I imagine, according to my opinion, that a woman will make Tunisia succeed because women are serious, combative and patient, and these three things are very important."

Saied asked Bouden, a little-known professor of geophysics who implemented World Bank projects at the education ministry, to form a government quickly amid a political crisis following his near total seizure of power.

But in reality, Bouden will have fewer powers than other prime ministers since Tunisia's Arab Spring uprising in 2011 because Saied now holds all the cards in his hands.

Last week, he suspended most of the constitution, saying he could rule by decree during an "exceptional" period with no set ending, calling into question democratic gains after Tunisia's revolution.

Elected in 2019, Saied has been under domestic and international pressure to name a government after he dismissed the prime minister, suspended parliament and assumed executive authority in July in moves his foes call a coup.

However, the appointment of Bouden marks a social advance in the Muslim country, which has some of the most progressive laws governing women's rights in North Africa and the Middle East.

Religion-based personal status laws govern marriage, child custody, divorce and inheritance although activist say Tunisia still discriminates in men's favour in inheritance rights.

Saied asked Bouden to propose a cabinet in the coming hours or days "because we have lost a lot of time".

His closest adviser is also a woman - presidency office director Nadia Akacha. She had been tipped as one of the likely candidates for prime minister before he tapped Bouden.

The president has said the new government should confront corruption and respond to the demands of Tunisians in all fields, including health, transport and education.

Women have only rarely held senior political roles in Arab countries.

But Saied's actions raise questions over whether Bouden will be given the tools to govern in a nation facing a crisis in public finances after years of economic stagnation were aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic and political infighting.

The new government urgently needs financial support for the budget and debt repayments after Saied's changes put talks with the International Monetary Fund on hold.

Bouden's appointment lifted some spirits, despite the limitations she will face.

"We were waiting for this moment, and I imagine that any woman, not only in Tunisia, but in the world, and any woman in the free world, is waiting at a moment like this that a woman is appointed to this position," said teacher Mouna Ben Sad.

"I just hope that she will do a good job and I hope that she will carry out a good program."

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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