Tunisia’s president appointed a geologist with no government experience as prime minister on Wednesday, amid a crisis over his seizure of broad powers and dire threats to the country’s finances.
Tunisia’s first female prime minister is Najla Bouden Romdhane, a little-known geophysics professor who oversaw World Bank projects at the education ministry.
President Kais Saied has been under increasing domestic and international pressure to form a government since dismissing the prime minister, suspending parliament, and assuming executive authority in July, actions his opponents call a coup.
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 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab spring.
Speaking in an online video, Saied said her appointment honoured Tunisian women and asked her to propose a cabinet in the coming hours or days “because we have lost a lot of time”.
The new government should confront corruption and respond to the demands and dignity of Tunisians in all fields, including health, transport and education, he added.
However, Bouden is likely to have less direct power than previous prime ministers under the 2014 constitution after Saied said last week that during the emergency period the government would be responsible to the president.
Much of the political elite, including most parties in the suspended parliament and the powerful UGTT labour union, have said they oppose Saied’s power grab and major Western donors have urged him to restore normal constitutional order.
Tunisia faces a rapidly looming crisis in public finances after years of economic stagnation were aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic and political infighting.
Government bonds are under pressure and the cost of insuring against their default has hit a record high, though bonds rose sharply on Wednesday after the announcement.
The new government will have to move very quickly to seek financial support for the budget and debt repayments after Saied’s power grab in July put talks with the International Monetary Fund on hold.
“It is a positive sign that a woman will lead the government. I hope she will immediately start saving the country from the spectre of bankruptcy. She should quickly look at the problems of Tunisians,” said Amin Ben Salem, a banker in Tunis.
There was no immediate reaction from the labour union or political parties to Bouden’s appointment. However, major parties in the parliament may challenge the legality of her appointment and that of any new government or the policies it tries to enact without consent of the suspended chamber.
A senior Tunisian politician told Reuters last week the new prime minister would face a daunting inbox as most government work had ground to a halt over the past two months and a vast array of files needed urgent attention.
Saied has replaced numerous officials throughout the administration but pledged to uphold rights and freedoms. He has said he will appoint a committee to amend the 2014 constitution.