Tunisian President Appoints Prime Minister Amid Protests Over Power Grab

TUNIS — Tunisia’s president appointed a new prime minister on Wednesday amid growing criticism of a series of steps he has taken over the past two months to concentrate power in his hands.

The president, Kais Saied, named Najla Bouden Romdhan, a director-general at the Ministry of Higher Education who runs a World Bank-financed program designed to support the modernization of the country’s higher education system. She is the first woman to hold the office. The appointment came more than two months after he suspended Parliament, fired the prime minister and took the reins of power himself in what opponents called a “coup.”

Mr. Saied promised in July to reinstate a prime minister, and the appointment technically fulfills that pledge while doing little to check his rapid accumulation of power. The new prime minister, a former geology professor at the National School for Engineering, appears to have little political experience, making her unlikely to pose much of threat to the president.

Mr. Saied is comfortably in charge of Tunisia, having given himself the power to rule by decree, unilaterally write legislation, propose changes to the political system and suspend parts of the Constitution. With Parliament frozen and the judiciary, military and security services under his control, he has arrested several political opponents and imposed travel bans and asset freezes on businesspeople and judges.

All this has occurred with the blessing of much of Tunisia’s population, who welcomed Mr. Saied’s July 25 power grab as their only chance to break the country’s political logjam and escape its economic and health crises.

But as months have passed without Mr. Saied offering a clear plan for political or economic reforms, more Tunisians have grown concerned over the threat to their fledgling democracy, the only one to emerge from the Arab Spring protests that engulfed the region a decade ago.

Najla Bouden Romdhan was previously a director-general at Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education.Credit…Tunisian Presidency, Via Afp/Getty Images

On Sunday, at least 2,000 people protested actions, demanding that he put an end to what they termed his “coup.” He faces mounting criticism from political parties and media outlets, including some that had supported him.

Mr. Saied had said on July 25 that his actions were temporary responses to Tunisia’s emergencies and that he would appoint a new head of government within 30 days, but later extended his “exceptional measures.” Despite growing local and international pressure, he has kept the suspension of Parliament in place and rejected calls for dialogue.

By appointing Tunisia’s first female prime minister, the president may hope to counter perceptions among Tunisian feminists that he does not support full gender equality because of his opposition to equal inheritance for women and men.

But now that Mr. Saied has concentrated authority in his own hands, she is likely to enjoy less power than previous prime ministers and unlikely to do more than run the day-to-day business of government.

The Constitution tasks the prime minister with choosing a cabinet, but Mr. Saied last week gave himself that responsibility, saying that constitutional provision would simply no longer apply.

Massinissa Benlakehal contributed reporting.

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