Tunisia picks first woman as PM at moment of crisis

A geological engineer, Romdhane was responsible for implementing World Bank projects at the education ministry, but she has little experience in government.

 Tunisia's President Kais Saied meets with newly appointed PM Najla Bouden Romdhane, in Tunis (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tunisia's President Kais Saied meets with newly appointed PM Najla Bouden Romdhane, in Tunis
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Tunisian President Kais Saied named Najla Bouden Romdhane, a little-known university engineer with World Bank experience, as prime minister on Wednesday, nearly two months after he seized most powers in a move his foes call a coup.

Romdhane, Tunisia's first woman prime minister, will take office in a moment of crisis, with the democratic gains won in a 2011 revolution in doubt and as a major threat looms to public finances.

A geological engineer, Romdhane was responsible for implementing World Bank projects at the education ministry, but she has little experience in government.

Speaking in a video published online, Saied said her appointment honored Tunisian women and asked her to propose a cabinet in the coming hours or days "because we have lost a lot of time".

The 62-year-old professor is the first woman chosen to lead Tunisia, and the first female prime minister in the Arab world.

A woman wears a protective face mask as she walks in Tunis, Tunisia March 4, 2020 (credit: REUTERS/ZOUBEIR SOUISSI)A woman wears a protective face mask as she walks in Tunis, Tunisia March 4, 2020 (credit: REUTERS/ZOUBEIR SOUISSI)

Saied dismissed the previous prime minister, suspended parliament, and assumed wide executive powers in July, and has been under growing domestic and international pressure to form a new government.

Last week he brushed aside much of the constitution, saying he could rule by decree and control the government himself, during an emergency period that has no defined endpoint.

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.

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 (IMF) on hold.

However, after Saied's announcement last week that the government will be responsible to the president and that he can select or sack cabinet ministers, the role of prime minister will be less important than in previous administrations.

Most of Tunisia's previous political elite, including most parties in the suspended parliament, have said they oppose Saied's power grab.