TUNIS — Tunisia’s president appointed a new prime minister on Wednesday amid growing criticism that he has embarked on one-man rule in the Arab Spring’s sole remaining democracy.
The newly named head of government, Najla Bouden Romdhan, believed to be the Arab world’s first woman prime minister, is a former geology professor and current director-general at the Ministry of Higher Education. She runs a World Bank-financed program designed to support the modernization of the country’s higher education system.
Her appointment came more than two months after the president, Kais Saied, suspended Parliament, fired the prime minister and seized power in what opponents called a “coup.”
He went further last week, declaring that he alone would have the authority to write legislation, enact political reforms, propose constitutional amendments and suspend parts of the Constitution.
By appointing a woman, the president may have hoped to counter mounting objections to his power grab from Tunisia’s secular, modernist elite, some of whom applauded his choice on Wednesday even as they denounced his unchecked authority.
“There’s clearly a policy of appeasement,” said Tarek Kahlaoui, a Tunisian political analyst. “It’ll give him some cover.”
The announcement may give him breathing room with both the international community, which has pressed him to follow through on his pledge to reinstate a prime minister within 30 days of taking power, and with Tunisians, who have supported his actions but have waited in vain for him to offer a plan.
“I hope they’ll improve the social conditions in the country now, and the economic situation,” said Alaa Briki, 23, one of the country’s many unemployed, who was having coffee with a friend in Tunis’s historic Medina neighborhood. “We’re expecting that the people in charge now will do something.”
Coming only after he pushed back his self-imposed deadline indefinitely, the appointment does little to check his rapid accumulation of power.
Born in 1958, the new prime minister — a friend of Mr. Saied’s sister-in-law, according to Jahouar Ben M’barek, an ex-colleague — appears to have little political experience, making her unlikely to do more than execute the president’s plans and run the day-to-day government.
Still, her appointment may go some way toward appeasing Tunisian feminists and secularists who have charged Mr. Saied with falling short on gender equality, given his opposition to changing Tunisia’s inheritance law to allow for equal inheritance for men and women.
“I can’t help but wish her success,” Sana Ben Achour, a prominent lawyer and critic of Mr. Saied, wrote on Facebook on Wednesday.
The Constitution assigns the prime minister the responsibility for choosing a cabinet, but Mr. Saied last week gave himself that task, saying that constitutional provision would simply no longer apply.
With Parliament frozen and the military and security services under his control, Mr. Saied has also arrested several political opponents and imposed travel bans and asset freezes on businesspeople and judges.
His moves have the blessing of much of Tunisia’s population, who welcomed his July 25 power grab as their only chance to break the country’s political logjam and escape its spiraling economic and health crises. The country’s economy contracted by about 8 percent last year, its worst downturn since independence in 1956, and earlier this year it had the highest Covid-19 mortality rate in the region.
But as the weeks 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, which began after mass protests overthrew the longtime dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in 2011.
On Sunday, at least 2,000 people protested Mr. Saied’s actions, demanding that he put an end to what they termed his “coup.” He faces mounting criticism from political parties, civil society and media personalities, including some who had supported him.
Mr. Saied had said on July 25 that his actions were temporary responses to Tunisia’s emergencies, but despite growing local and international pressure, he has kept the suspension of Parliament in place and rejected calls for dialogue.
Massinissa Benlakehal contributed reporting from Tunis, and Asmaa al-Omar from Beirut.