When she was appointed on October 11, 2021, regime supporters, especially within the media, praised the novelty: for the first time in the Arab world, a woman would head government. While not unimportant, the symbolism masks a deeper issue. Since July 25, 2021, and still more since September 22, 2021, the president stands alone at the helm of executive power. More than a real leader, Bouden serves as the coordinator of governmental action. In the months following her appointment, she strove to instill this image within the collective imagination. The part of prime minister has thus become a secondary figure within the executive body.

Bouden speaks very little. In videos published by the Office of the President, we see her acquiesce to Saied’s monologues. Her first appearance in this context was ridiculed on social media. During a meeting with Saied to discuss the formation of his new team, « Praise God! » were her words when the president evoked the 1.8 million Tunisians who had come out in his support, especially on Avenue Bourguiba. Bouden, a university professor with an engineering degree, validated this fake news. Her critics, notably Abir Moussi, seized on the opportunity to denounce the « token woman » of a regime whose feminism is not its strongest quality. In fact, during Bouden’s time in office, the regime brought an end to parity in legislative, municipal and local elections. What is more, the new constitution adopts Sharia in the name of Islam (article 5).

Last ministerial work session led by Najla Bouden at the Kasbah before her dismissal. Credit: Office of the President.

Silence, a new mode of governance

During the 22 months that she was in office, Bouden did not grant a single interview to the local press. Her basic knowledge of classical Arabic prompted gibes on social media. Ultimately, this absence of communication proved to be a form of governance. Aside from a few media appearances by certain ministers and rare press briefings with the government spokesman (a position that has remained vacant since the dismissal of Nassreddine Nsibi on February 22, 2023),  the Kasbah presumes that its sole accountability is to the head of state.

The government’s policy of non-communication is not exclusive to its relations with the press, but extends to social partners as well. Through Circular 2021-20 of December 9, 2021, Bouden barred all administrations and public companies from entering into discussions with unions without prior consent from the general secretariat. That decision was considered an affront by the UGTT, which has since demanded the measure’s withdrawal. Despite promises made by the executive, the circular will never be removed. Relations between the two parties are increasingly strained. Participation in the general strike held on June 16, 2022 was high. Buoyed by this success, the UGTT approved a second movement targeting public companies. Brandishing its indifference, the government published photos taken during a Council of Ministers meeting in which officials appear relaxed and laughing. Such unorthodox images were perceived as a provocation.

Although condemned by the UGTT, the method was ultimately effective. The government succeeded in minimizing the UGTT’s role, knocking its status as co-manager of national affairs down to that of  simple social partner. Bouden also managed to obtain a wage agreement concerning civil servants and public company employees. Even against a backdrop of soaring inflation, the UGTT not only accepted a revaluation much weaker than the increased cost of living, but also committed to not making new demands before 2025.

The sidelining of social partners and absence of authorities representative of the opposition has enabled the government to advance on projects that were decried during the post-revolution decade. One such project is the push to autonomize public universities, an initiative that has since been set into motion without any consultation process.

Strategic divergences with Carthage

One of the reasons often advanced by partisans of the presidential regime is the need to put an end to bicentricity (the division of responsibilities between the two heads of the executive). Najla Bouden was appointed by Kais Saied to implement his policies, a principle laid out by Decree 117 and subsequently by the new constitution. In spite of this well established hierarchy, however, executive actions have revealed strategic discrepancies between Carthage and the Kasbah. This is particularly true when it comes to socio-economic issues. Whereas Bouden follows in the steps of her predecessors evoking the need for reform, Saied advocates for criminal amnesty and community-based enterprises. The latter were hardly ever evoked in government communications. The most telling instance of these divergences are negotiations with the IMF. The plan which obtained the « technical » agreement from the Washington-based institution in October 2022 was prepared by experts duly mandated by the government. The Kasbah lauded what it regarded as an « achievement ». But all of this was undercut by Saied’s inflexibility, which put off all imminent prospects of a definitive agreement and its attached loan.

Transfer of authority: Najla Bouden and Ahmed Hachani with President Kais Saied. Wednesday, August 2, 2023.

This division of roles within the executive enables the president to shove the responsibility of unpopular measures, or those out of step with his own political agenda, onto the government’s shoulders. The most revelatory example here is Decree-law 2022-68 which enables foreign investors to acquire real estate in Tunisia. The text enables the establishment of renewable energy projects on agricultural land without the obligatory prerequisite of a land-use change.

Finally, it can be noted that Najla Bouden accompanied the regime’s drift into authoritarianism. One of the first lawsuits filed on the basis of Decree-law 54 concerned a press article which used factual information to evaluate the prime minister’s first year in office.

Given the ultra-presidential nature of the regime in place since 2021, evaluating the work carried out by the head of government becomes secondary. Nevertheless, Bouden’s term at the Kasbah helped to instill in the collective imagination a new mode of governance based solely upon the will of one, all-powerful president.