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Tunisian president appoints first female prime minster

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Tunisians have a new prime minister, their first female head of government. She takes over at a critical time. Tunisia's president fired the last prime minister, dissolved parliament and assumed extraordinary powers for himself this year. That's left some wondering whether this new prime minister is simply window dressing on a coup. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Tunis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAJLA BOUDEN: (Non-English language spoken).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Sixty-three-year-old Najla Bouden, speaking here at the presidential palace in Carthage, is an engineer and geology professor, and this is her first foray into politics. She's described as hardworking, rigorous, competent and humble. Outside the prime minister's residence in Tunis, 59-year-old housewife Sabeh Shelbi echoes the feelings of many Tunisians.

SABEH SHELBI: (Through interpreter) To have a woman prime minister is a real point of pride for Tunisia. And she's the first in the Arab world. We hope she will succeed.

BEARDSLEY: Ten years after Tunisia's dictator was brought down in the first Arab Spring uprising, this tiny democracy is struggling. Tunisia's economy is indebted and failing. Unemployment is higher than before the revolution. And the country's political system is mired in corruption. This summer, as the delta variant ravaged the country, parliament bickered. And that's when President Kais Saied dissolved it. Despite international concerns about a power grab, a large majority of Tunisians applaud his move, like 34-year-old school administrator Rahma Ben Mansour.

RAHMA BEN MANSOUR: I was very happy that he froze the parliament because the political situation - we lost hope. As a woman, I am happy with this nomination, but at the same time, is it symbolic nomination just to have women's sympathy?

(CROSSTALK)

BEARDSLEY: Her colleague, 52-year-old Hadhami Hachad, says she doesn't care if Bouden's appointment is only symbolic. She believes it's still going to make a difference.

HADHAMI HACHAD: I do believe women will do better, will look after this country better. Women will focus on what the country needs rather than political fights and their political careers.

BEARDSLEY: She's talking about women plural because a week or so after naming the prime minister, Saied appointed nine more women to his 23-member cabinet. That may sound extraordinary, especially in a Muslim country, but Tunisia has always been different. Tunisian women have enjoyed equal rights with men since the 1956 civil code that abolished polygamy. And women are a significant part of the country's workforce. Thirty-year-old Adnen Ben Hadj Yahia runs an NGO and takes me through one of the city's poorer neighborhoods where he works. He says Tunisian men appreciate the role women play in society.

ADNEN BEN HADJ YAHIA: I'm very appreciative of Tunisian women in general, especially in these kind of neighborhoods, because they take life very seriously, and they are hard workers. However, the men will stay in the coffee shops, waiting for an opportunity. So yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AIDA HAMDI: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Aida Hamdi is one of Tunisia's new female ministers. Here, she takes an oath on the Quran as the new government was sworn in on October 11. Prior to Hamdi's appointment, NPR spoke to the Paris-based consultant about the choice of a female prime minister.

HAMDI: This is also a positive message to create a new atmosphere of confidence, you see? (Non-English language spoken), to have confidence in the new government and the new system that is being built.

BEARDSLEY: But with parliament shuttered, the constitution largely suspended and the role of prime minister clearly weakened, some fear the new system is being built around the powers of one man, President Kais Saied.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sorry. I don't have a business card.

BEARDSLEY: Ahmed Gaaloul is an official with Ennahda, Tunisia's Islamist party, which has called Saied's power grab a coup. Popular after the revolution and in power for much of the past decade, Ennahda is now largely blamed for the country's woes. Gaaloul says a female prime minister is a fine idea, but with the parliament suspended, she lacks legitimacy.

AHMED GAALOUL: If he allowed her to go to the parliament and for the parliament to vote for a government, then we will applaud and hail our country for having the first lady head of government. But right now, this is not the case, which is a shame because we are losing this opportunity.

BEARDSLEY: Tunisians are hoping their new prime minister will be strong enough to address the country's deep problems, and they say having a woman in charge sends a positive message to the world. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Tunis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENAHAN STREET BAND'S "BIRDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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