President Kais Saied named a geologist with little government experience as Tunisia’s first woman prime minister on Wednesday amid a crisis following his seizure of powers and with public finances close to breaking point.
He asked Najla Bouden Romdhane, a little-known professor of geophysics who implemented World Bank projects at the education ministry, to form a government as quickly as possible. The move prompted a surge in Tunisian bond prices.
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.
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 protests.
Speaking in an online video, Saied said Bouden’s 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.
Women have only rarely held senior political roles in Arab countries. In Tunisia, Saied has also appointed a woman, Nadia Akacha, as chief of staff, his closest and most powerful aide.
Bouden is likely to have less direct power than previous prime ministers under the 2014 constitution, however, 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 Western donors have urged him to restore normal constitutional order.
Tunisia faces a looming crisis in public finances after years of economic stagnation were aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic and political infighting.
Government bonds , made their best gains in a year on the news after a significant sell-off since Saied’s intervention, along with pressure on the cost of insuring against default.
“The key is the possibility of IMF support,” said Viktor Szabo, an emerging markets portfolio manager at ABRDN in London.
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.
“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 direct reaction from the labour union or political parties to Bouden’s appointment.
However, the biggest party in the elected parliament, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, urged its leader the parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi to resume the assembly’s work in defiance of Saied.
The statement underscores how parties in parliament may challenge the legality of any government appointed without the consent of the suspended chamber.
Saied spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel’s office said she had told him it was essential to return to parliamentary democracy in dialogue with other political players.
A senior Tunisian politician said 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.