Embattled Tunisian Leader Appoints New Prime Minister Amid Protests

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Tunisian President

Kais Saied,

facing growing resistance to a power-grab that his opponents called a coup, appointed a new prime minister on Wednesday to help tackle the North African country’s worsening economic problems.

Najla Bouden Romdhane,

a little-known professor at a Tunisian university who implements World Bank projects for Tunisia’s Education Ministry, becomes the country’s first woman prime minister, with the task of forming a stable government after weeks of turmoil.

Mr. Saied dismissed the previous government and suspended parliament in late July, claiming a range of executive powers for himself as protests mounted over the previous administration’s handling of a Covid-19 outbreak.

Many Tunisians at first welcomed the move for ending a long-running stalemate with the cabinet and legislature, with whom the president shared power.

But now Mr. Saied is facing protests after issuing a presidential order giving himself the power to rule by decree on Sept. 22. Thousands of people demonstrated in downtown Tunis on Sunday calling on Mr. Saied to step down.

The crisis is the most serious challenge to Tunisia’s democratic transition since the country overthrew its former dictator in 2011. The uprising catalyzed a series of revolutions across the Middle East known as the Arab Spring. Mr. Saied cast the appointment of a new prime minister—even an unelected one—as a step forward.

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied, behind desk, met with New Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhane in Tunis on Wednesday.



Photo:

tunisian presidency/Reuters

“This is a historic moment, an honor for Tunisia and a tribute to Tunisian women,” said Mr. Saied as he appointed Ms. Romdhane.

Some Tunisian feminists were critical of the move.

“Kais Saied tokenizing a woman in this particular political context, setting her up to fail and giving her a void mandate is not a symbolic gesture, it’s a farce,”

Fida Hamammi,

the Middle East and North Africa advocacy coordinator at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, an activist group, wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Saied faces pressure to restore democracy in Tunisia, including calls from members of the U.S. Congress to cut aid to Tunis.

Many Tunisians who supported Mr. Saied’s decision to remove the previous Islamist-led government, meanwhile, are turning against him as he centralizes power and the country’s economic problems drag on. Protesters in central Tunis on Sunday chanted: “No to coup, yes to rule of law.”

Mr. Saied’s recent decree effectively sets aside much of Tunisia’s constitution and gives the president the sole power to set government policy on a range of issues. Mr. Saied said the new government was needed to fight corruption, but it wasn’t immediately clear how much power the new administration would have under his presidential decrees.

A group of 18 Tunisian and international human-rights groups called last week’s decree a first step towards authoritarianism.

“This turning point threatens the human rights and democratic aspirations of the Tunisian people,” said the rights groups, which include Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists.

Tunisians protested against the president in Tunis on Sunday.



Photo:

Eyepix/Action Press/Zuma Press

Write to Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com

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