Tunisia: who is Najla Bouden, the first woman to head a government?

Najla Bouden, was charged this Wednesday with forming a new government in Tunisia. It is the first time that this task has been entrusted to a woman in the history of the country. But its prerogatives will be limited, after President Kais Saied has assumed full powers. This surprise appointment was announced two months after the dismissal on July 25 of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi by the head of state, who also froze Parliament and took over the judiciary.

According to a presidential statement, Kais Saied instructed Najla Bouden to form a government “in the next few hours or days.” But it is the Head of State who will be the real holder of executive power. He will chair the Council of Ministers, by virtue of a decree containing “exceptional measures” adopted on 22 September.

Doctor of geology

Completely unknown to the general public and a scientist by training, Najla Bouden, born in 1958, is from the city of Kairouan, in the center of the country. Doctor in geology, she taught this discipline at the national school of engineers of Tunis (Enit). She then spent “a large part of her career” in the Ministry of Higher Education, report Young Africa. In 2015, she was notably a member of the cabinet of Minister of Higher Education Chiheb Bouden.

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Since 2016, she was in charge of the management of a project subsidized by the World Bank to reform higher education. However, it does not have recognized skills in economics. Prior to managing the World Bank-subsidized project, she was Director General at the Ministry of Higher Education.

The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women welcomed the choice of the president, assuring that it had requested it. Renowned activist Bochra Bel Haj Hmida praised the symbolic significance of the gesture but recalled that Kais Saied was “known” for negative positions on gender equality. Indeed, at the end of 2019, during the electoral campaign and once elected president, the president opposed any bill putting men and women on an equal footing.

“May she solve the country’s problems!”

In the street, Tunisian women expressed their joy after the appointment of a woman Prime Minister. But “that does not mean that we will support her no matter what,” one of them, Yasmine Benhassen, a 21-year-old student told AFP. “We’ll be careful what she’s going to do.” For Raoua Gorab, an unemployed woman in her thirties, what matters is “that she resolves the country’s problems, that she improves the situation on the job market”, because “afterwards the pandemic, everything has closed! ”

The appointment of Najla Bouden “is a positive thing, a recognition of the importance of the role of women in Tunisia and of their ability to succeed in all fields,” political scientist Slaheddine Jourchi told AFP. But Najla Bouden lacks experience, he added, expressing doubts about his ability “to face all the huge complex issues” that await him. Highly indebted and dependent on international aid, Tunisia is facing a deep economic and social crisis – fall in GDP, high inflation, unemployment at nearly 18% -, aggravated by the Covid pandemic.

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The main mission of the government will be “to put an end to the corruption and chaos which has spread to many state institutions,” the president told the Prime Minister. In recent weeks, Kais Saied has come under heavy pressure to move forward with the establishment of a new executive. Its exceptional measures have been criticized by NGOs as “a grabbing of power”. On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel judged a “return to parliamentary democracy” “essential” during a telephone interview with President Saied.


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