Tunisia president dismisses Najla Bouden, appoints new prime minister

Kais Saied has tasked Ahmed al-Hachani with overcoming the ‘great challenges’ facing the cash-strapped North African country.

President Kais Saied shakes hand with newly appointed Prime Minister Ahmed al-Hachani
President Kais Saied, left, shakes hands with newly appointed Prime Minister Ahmed al-Hachani, right, on August 1, 2023, at Carthage Palace in Tunis [Handout via Tunisian Presidency]

Tunisian President Kais Saied has sacked Prime Minister Najla Bouden without explanation and replaced her with former central bank executive Ahmed al-Hachani, the Tunisian presidency said.

Bouden, who was the first woman to head a government in Tunisia, was “terminated” shortly before midnight on Tuesday by the president who immediately appointed al-Hachani, a little-known former human resources director at Tunisia’s central bank.

No official explanation was given for Bouden’s dismissal, but several Tunisian media outlets highlighted Saied’s displeasure over shortages, particularly of bread in state-subsidised bakeries.

Bouden’s government is seen as having been unable to fix the economic and social crisis that Tunisia is mired in as resources dwindle and prices skyrocket.

Translation: The President of the Republic Kais Saied, oversees the swearing-in procession of Ahmed al-Hachani, head of government.

Al-Hachani, who now takes over that responsibility, was sworn in before the president at Carthage Palace, according to the presidency.

“There are great challenges … in order to protect our homeland, our state and civil peace,” Saied told al-Hachani after he took the constitutional oath.

At the end of the ceremony, Saied wished him “good luck in this responsibility”.

Bouden ‘expelled from the small door’

Bouden, a university engineer who had worked with the World Bank, was appointed prime minister by Saied in October 2021, two and a half months after the president granted himself sweeping powers by dismissing his then-prime minister and suspending parliament.

Since his power grab, which the opposition has decried as a coup, Saied has ruled by decree.

Bouden’s government was able to make little to no progress on the economy, and fears were rising that Tunisia would be unable to pay its foreign debts and people struggled to find basic commodities like bread, farina, sugar, rice and coffee.

She had supported an economic reform programme that would be needed to obtain a $1.9bn loan from the International Monetary Fund,  but Saeid rejected any reforms that would include cutting subsidies on food and energy, saying doing so could cause acute social tensions.

Social media users reacted to Bouden’s dismissal with indifference.

“Najla Bouden left in the same manner as she was appointed,” one user wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter.

“When you are appointed by a coup that has levelled the constitution, the law, and the Tunisian state institutions, and when you throw your lot in with criminals and murderers, then it is not surprising that you remain a sycophant nodding your head until they expel you through the small door,” opposition politician Abdelmalik Hussein said on X.

Others pointed out that al-Hachani does not have the credentials to be the country’s prime minister.

“He is a man who was in charge of the human resources department in the Central Bank and has nothing to do with the economy,” one user on X wrote. “The gentleman has been retired for five years. What kind of experience does he have?”

Economic woes

Tunisia’s political crisis has gone hand in hand with its serious economic difficulties as debt piles up, growth stays sluggish at 2 percent, poverty increases and unemployment remains high at 15 percent.

The North African country, which is saddled with a crippling public wage bill from a civil service that employs 680,000 of its 12 million citizens, is struggling with debt of about 80 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and seeking foreign aid.

Faced with a low-wage economy, the Tunisian state has since the 1970s centralised the purchase of a large number of basic ingredients such as flour, semolina, sugar, coffee and cooking oil, before putting them on the market at subsidised prices.

There have been sporadic shortages of these products for months, linked, according to economists, to suppliers requiring advance payment, which Tunisia has had great difficulty doing.

Several meetings have taken place recently within the government and between the president and ministers over the problem of shortages of subsidised bread in several regions.

According to the media, Saied, who recently said “bread is a red line for Tunisians”, fears a repeat of the bread riots that left 150 dead in 1984 under Habib Bourguiba, the “father of Tunisian independence”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies