TUNIS, Tunisia — Salma Elloumi Rekik assumed her post as head of the presidential diwan Nov. 1. She replaced Salim Elezabi, who resigned Oct. 9 due to his opposing the policy adopted by Hafez Caid Essebsi, the executive director of Nidaa Tunis and son of President Beji Caid Essebsi.
Rekik, a 62-year-old businesswoman, served as minister of tourism and handicrafts for three years. She will be the first woman to head the presidential diwan, which oversees the work of the president's advisers, since Tunisia’s 1956 independence. President Essebsi appointed her to the post Oct. 21.
Rekik has survived four Cabinet reshuffles, which were lobbied for by several opposition parties and the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT).
Bushra Belhaj Hamida, an official spokeswoman for the presidency, told Al-Monitor that the appointment of Rekik is an important step toward empowering women in politics. “Women need to be granted sovereign ministries,” she said.
Hamida added that Tunisian women still aspire to secure high-ranking political positions, especially since they accounted for 47.7% of the total winners in the municipal elections. They also headed 29.55% of the electoral lists, according to statistics announced by the Supreme Independent Electoral Commission in May 2018.
She said Rekik earned the post given her performance as minister of tourism and handicrafts.
Forbes Magazine named Rekik one of the top 10 most powerful Arab women in government for 2017 due to the success she achieved in Tunisia's public sector.
Three million Algerian and Libyan tourists visited Tunisia in 2016, while 6.7 million tourists from all over the world visited the country this year. Despite the terrorist operations witnessed in Tunisia, Rekik managed to turn Tunisia into the second destination in Africa, following South Africa.
Mounia Ibrahim, a member of Ennahda movement, which holds a majority in parliament, told Al-Monitor that Rekik’s appointment marks a valuable victory for Tunisian women in politics. She pointed out that although women have managed to hold political decision-making positions, their representation within parties remains insufficient.
She added that out of 160 Tunisian parties, only two are headed by women: the Democratic Movement for Building and Reform, headed by Amina Mansour al-Qarawi, and the Tunisian Party, headed by Myriam Mnaouar.
This, according to Ibrahim, is a weak figure in a country that has come a long way in the field of rights and freedoms and that seeks to promote the role of women in decision-making positions.
Maha Jouini, a member of the Regional Coalition for Women Human Rights Defenders, told Al-Monitor that Rekik’s appointment was well deserved, as the post had thus far been the preserve of men.
“Community growth is measured by the ability to integrate women and enhance their capacity as leaders in the political and development process,” she said, adding, “This appointment reflects women's role in building a democratic and political process in Tunisia in the wake of the January 2014 revolution.”
Abdeljabbar Maddouri, the former editor-in-chief of Sawt Achaab newspaper, told Al-Monitor that Rekik’s appointment was merely a measure aimed to satisfy her after she resigned as treasurer in Nidaa Tunis and after the Oct. 17 decision to merge the Free Patriotic Union with Nidaa Tunis.
Rekik’s appointment precedes a Cabinet reshuffle that is yet to be announced by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed. The reshuffle aims to fill the positions of minister of energy and minister of tourism and handicrafts.
Khaled Kaddour was dismissed from his post as minister of energy on corruption charges, and the Cabinet reshuffle might include other ministries, depending on their performance.
Political parties in Tunisia have yet to agree on the reshuffle, as the Nidaa Tunis bloc (55 parliamentarians out of 217) is calling for Chahed’s departure, while Ennahda (68 parliamentarians out of 217) is seeking a ministerial reshuffle while keeping Chahed in his post.
On the other hand, Yuad bin Rajab, a member of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, a nongovernmental organization, praised Rekik’s appointment in a statement to Al-Monitor. She said such an appointment is the fruit of women’s efforts and successes in all fields.
She said, however, that this shall not overshadow the violations that women are still facing as part of attempts to silence their voices and isolate them in politics.
Women's gains, she added, are still at stake amid the ongoing violations and attacks carried out against women in the public sector.
The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women — an independent women's rights group that works to achieve full and effective gender equality — condemned in a statement issued Oct. 29 the violations committed against female political activists, such as verbal abuse and exposure to violence.
Yamina al-Zaghlami, a parliamentarian for Ennahda, was the subject of a derogatory media campaign due to her helping out a person whom the Ministry of Interior had banned from traveling to France for security reasons. Nidaa Tunis parliamentarian Fatma al-Massadi accused Zaghlami of helping a terrorist leave the country in a press statement to El Hasade website Oct. 29.
Rekik’s appointment as head of the presidential diwan is a bold attempt to involve women in Tunisia's political decision-making process at a time when Tunisian women keep hoping for a chance to fulfill their dreams of taking over sovereign ministries and the presidency.
Correction: Nov. 15, 2018 An earlier version of this article missated the date of Tunisia's independence. It is 1956.
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