Najla Bouden, the Woman Set to Lead Tunisia in a State of Exception
Abdel Aziz Hali 4 October 2021

Between political speculations and rumours, the nomination of a woman as the possible head of the next Tunisian government had been echoing on social networks in recent months.

If the name of Nadia Akacha – director of the office of the presidency – was on everyone’s lips and looked in pole position of the contenders for the post of Prime Minister, President Kais Saied surprised everyone by appointing, on September 29th, Najla Bouden to form a new government in Tunisia.

This surprise appointment was announced two months after the sacking on July 25th of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi by the Head of State, who also froze the parliament and took in hand the judiciary.

In fact, Bouden will have fewer powers than other prime ministers since the Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia in 2011, as Saied now holds all the cards and is the real holder of executive power: he will chair the council of ministers, under a decree containing “exceptional measures” adopted on September 22nd.

Indeed, Saied suspended most of the constitution, saying he could rule by decree for an “exceptional” period with no defined end, calling into question the democratic gains after the Tunisian revolution.

However, the appointment of a woman – a first in the Arab world – marks a social advance in this Muslim country, which has several of the most progressive laws governing women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

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


A tentative profile

A true UFO, she is completely unknown to the general public. A scientist by training (a geologist), the sexagenarian with short greying hair has another asset that weighed in the President’s choice: she is from the same circle. She is the same age – 63 years old -, also from the governorate of Nabeul, with the same background in higher education and no political past – or liabilities.

A professor at the Ecole Nationale d’Ingénieurs de Tunis, her academic and research expertise includes seismic assessment, building vulnerability assessment and simulation of seismic risk scenarios, as well as public awareness of risk and disaster management.

She holds a PhD in earthquake engineering and a PhD in mining engineering from the Ecole des Mines de Paris and a degree in civil engineering from the Ecole Supérieure des Travaux Publics de Paris.

Over the past decades, she has been involved in several working groups and programmes in the MENA region. At an international level, Najla Bouden is co-chair of the Global Advisory Group on Science and Technology at the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

In addition to her academic work, she is Director General at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, in charge of the World Bank-funded Higher Education for Employment Project, TEEP, which supports ongoing higher education reform.

Previously, she was a senior advisor to seven Ministers of Higher Education and Scientific Research (from 2006 to 2016). In this context, she set up the first competitive and innovative funding programme (Programme d’Appui à la Qualité, PAQ) which supports projects on quality assurance, governance, innovation and entrepreneurship.


Mixed reactions

Meanwhile, in the microcosm of political life, Najla Bouden’s appointment left no one indifferent.

The Islamist party Ennahdha, the main force in the Tunisian Parliament, suspended since the coup de force of President Kais Saied, squarely denounced – a day after the move – as “unconstitutional” the appointment of a new head of government.

In a statement, Ennahdha expressed its “respect for Tunisian women” and hailed their “struggle for freedom and equality”, and “warned against the appointment of the head of government on the basis of an unconstitutional presidential decree and with purely formal prerogatives”. According to the movement, the appointment, “which does not respect constitutional procedures, will aggravate the economic and social crises in the country and will not help to resolve them”.

For his part, Samir Dilou, the resigning deputy of Ennahda, considered that the decision to appoint a woman for the first time in the history of Tunisia to head the government deserves to be welcomed, wondering if this was really a “historic moment”.

At the same time, however, he also expressed regret over the symbolism of appointing Ms Bouden as head of government at a time when the head of state is suspending the constitution and seizing power. “You will preside over the government of a country whose economy is in great difficulty, whose public finances are in a situation that is no longer a secret to anyone, whose street is divided, and whose health situation – despite the notable improvement – is still fragile. You will have to answer a question that your counterparts in friendly and sister governments – or heads of donor institutions – might ask about you and your team: you took the oath of office without gaining the confidence of an elected legislative institution…”, he continued.

Ennahda leader Yamina Zoghlami also reiterated that the government and its composition must be presented to the parliament in accordance with the constitution, saying that she would have wanted the appointment of a woman to head the government to be done within the framework of legitimacy.

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the leader of the Free Destourian Party (PDL) Abir Moussi assured that she is proud of the appointment of a woman to this position and that she is in solidarity with her, especially considering all that awaits her.

Abir Moussi indicated that the PDL had always supported “the presence of women at the head of all decision-making positions”, stressing that she “can only be proud of the appointment of a woman of the caliber of Najla Bouden at the head of the government, especially since she is an enlightened woman, fruit of the Bourguibian school”.

More than that, Mrs. Moussi considered that the President of the Republic is misleading citizens when he indicated that Mrs. Bouden would be in charge of forming the government, while Decree 117 states that he himself is in charge of forming the government and defining its policies and orientations.

“The President of the Republic spoils our joy every time, as it was the case on July 25th when he did not dissolve the Parliament and only suspended it. Today, when he appoints a woman, he deprives her of her prerogatives and does not allow her to establish her strategy and act according to her competences”.

Nevertheless, Abir Moussi pledged to protect the head of government “against any possible slippage on the part of Kaïs Saïed”.

“I hope that Ms. Bouden will obtain the confidence of the parliament after the presentation of her government,” said MP and leader of the Qalb Tounes party, Oussama Khlifi in a post on his Facebook account. He recalled that the Constitution, in its Article 89, states that the government must present its programme to the Assembly of People’s Representatives (ARP) and obtain its confidence by an absolute majority of its members. The MP explained that this will guarantee legitimacy for this government.

Al Karama MP Abdellatif Aloui also agreed with this statement and said in a short post on Facebook that the legitimacy of the head of government is granted by the Parliament.

On the other hand, MP Walid Jallad said that Najla Bouden, who is in charge of forming the government, was decorated by the late former president Beji Caïd Essebsi as a geologist and by former Minister of Higher Education Salim Khalbous and wished him success in his mission.

The head of Echaâb, Haykel Mekki, expressed his pride by publishing a statute in which he paid tribute to Tunisian women.


Voices from the society

The appointment of Ms. Bouden “is a positive thing, a recognition of the importance of the role of women in Tunisia and their ability to succeed in all areas,” political scientist Slaheddine Jourchi told AFP. But she lacks experience, he added, expressing doubts about her ability “to deal with all the huge and complex issues” that await her.

The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women welcomed the president’s choice, saying it had openly called for such pick.

The lawyer and former adviser to former president Béji Caïd Essebsi, Saïda Garrache, expressed her joy and wrote: “Congratulations to the women of Tunisia and to Tunisia, a first, a woman head of government”. She went as far as to describe this appointment as a new victory over patriarchy and reactionary mentalities.

The renowned activist Bochra Bel Haj Hmida welcomed the symbolic significance of the gesture but recalled that Mr. Saied was “known” for negative positions on gender equality. At the end of 2019, during the election campaign and once elected president, Mr. Saied opposed any bill that would give men and women equal rights to inheritance.

“The Tunisians have almost unanimously welcomed the appointment of Najla Bouden as head of government, a great first in the country of the Personal Status Code”, wrote political commentator Brahim Oueslati. “I hope that she will not suffer the fate of Edith Cresson, the first woman to be appointed Prime Minister in France by François Mitterrand, who left Matignon in tears after only 10 months and a few days in office (from May 15, 1991 to April 2, 1992),” he added.

The government’s main task, Saied told to Ms Bouden, will be “to put an end to the corruption and chaos that has spread in many state institutions”. Will she have the necessary political space and tools to deliver such long-cherished mission?


Cover Photo: Najla Bouden received a mandate by Tunisia’s president Kais Saied to form a new government – Carthage, September 29th 2021 (Facebook / Présidence Tunisie).

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