Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Olfa Hamdi: A Meteoric Take Off into Tunisian Politics

Olfa Hamdi
Olfa Hamdi. Photo:

By: Iheb Jemel

Less than a year and a half ago, the name Olfa Hamdi was completely foreign to most Tunisians. Today the 32 year-old single woman is one of the most polarizing figures on Tunisian mainstream and social media. In less than two months, her short appointment as the head of Tunisair seemed to have generated more ink than any other previous CEO and even most cabinet members in the last few years.

Ms. Hamdi was born in Medenine,468 km south of Tunis, to Moncef Hamdi, a doctor of statistics and Faiza Khanoussi a housewife. Originally from Gafsa, a city in the southwest of the country, she has often put emphasis on her southern origins throughout her rise to stardom. In social media and in different interviews, she has been dubbed as “the daughter of the mining basin”, a title that had definitely earned her some “revolutionary legitimacy” since the region is known for its revolts and insurrections against the previous Ben Ali and Bourguiba regimes.

In reality, not much is known on whether she had actually ever lived in Gafsa. In a 2012 interview, she said that “she had lived in Tunis, the capital city, up until she was 18.” It is indeed in Tunis that she graduated highschool in 2007 from “Bourguiba Pioneer School”, an elite public high school to which entrance is regulated by a rigorous na-tional exam.

Having excelled in the national baccalaureate, she received a state scholarship to continue her studies in Ecole Centrale de Lille in France where she graduated with a Masters of science in engineer-ing. From there, she went on to get a Master of Science in Capital Project Management from The University of Texas in Austin and a graduate degree in Alternative Dispute Resolution for construction disputes from Texas School of Law.

Her professional qualifications have been challenged by members of the Tunisian General Labour Union, to which Olfa Hamdi responded by sharing her different diplomas on  a facebook post, and indicating that she had also worked as a professor in the Military Staff School of the Tunisian Army, a job before which she had been subject to a thor-ough government screening.

The sonic boom

Her first appearance on Tunisian media was in April 2019. In an hour long interview on Carthage TV, she was presented as a Tunisian success story and the CEO of Concord Company Projects, one of the major companies in the United States. In her own words, she came up with “ideas that had a major impact on the US economy.”

The interview put her on the map, but her big media break came a few months later when she was given a primetime interview on national TV, just a few days after the presidential and legislative elections, and exactly two days before the president’s inauguration. In an election that saw an unprecedented political engagement from the youth, Olfa Hamdi was the perfect role model for such hopeful times: an eloquent educated young woman who came from a middle class southern family and managed to succeed when given opportunity. The fact that she proudly spoke in a Gafsi accent,that was long marginalized by the mainstream media which prioritized the northern and coastal cities, only added another charismatic layer to this newly found embodiment of a Tunisian success story.

From then on, Olfa Hamdi gained momentum. Her popularity and presence on social media became more prominent. Today, she has over 330 000 followers on Facebook. To put things into perspective, Hichem Mechichi, the current prime minister barely has 22 000 follow-ers.

In December 2019, news outlets reported that she was being consid-ered for the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs. Neither Ms Hamdi, nor the proposed PM Habib Jemli commented on the topic.

Two weeks later, she announced through  a facebook post that she was indeed asked to consider the position and had multiple meetings with Mr Jemli, whom she accused of a lack of transparency in the se-lection process.

It would go months in which she would not make headlines up until early January 2021 when she was named CEO of Tunisair, the na-tional flag carrier.

CEO of Tunisair : a short-haul

From the very beginning, her appointment in Tunisair was met with mixed reactions. Some were enthusiastic since she represented a bold choice for a company that has long been suffering from mismanagement. Her supporters saw her appointment as an opportunity to prove that selecting youth and women for positions of power might be the long searched answer for a struggling economy.

Her opponents pointed at her lack of experience. In all fairness, she was facing an uphill fight from the very beginning: Tunisair had long been struggling and the COVID19 made things worse. The company did not have a CEO for a few months already, its revenues fell 67% during the first three quarters of 2020 and its number of passengers decreased by 74% during the same period.

Ms Hamdi’s “take-off” as CEO of Tunisair was certainly over-publicized. On the company’s official facebook page: around 1 in every 4 pictures is of Ms Hamdi’s daily activities. This use of the company’s social media was quite unusual for a Tunisair CEO, critics on social and mainstream media accused her of self promotion and of using the company’s resources to further establish herself as a brand name. Moreover, she announced that an advisory board will be established, and that she is in communication with “top air company offi-cials” who will be helping save the national carrier as “a personal favor to her.” Furthermore, she also proclaimed that 4 planes had been repaired within a week within a week and that the company’s catering services are back after a long discontinuance.

Not long after that came her first real “turbulence” when she had to face the Tunisair syndicate, part of the increasingly politically powerful UGTT (Tunisian General Union Labor).

In a viral video, Ms Hamdi was shown addressing the employees and condemning members of the syndicate who, in her own words, “were not allowing the company to function properly” and “welcomed her with sit-ins from the very first day.”

This was the first of many confrontations she had with the Union Labor and its leader,Noureddine Taboubi, who accused her of being “passionate about creating social media buzz, sensationalism and populism”. In her turn, Ms Hamdi shared an open letter addressed to the general public and Mr Taboubi calling him “the wrong man in the right place.

In a time where a large portion of the population has been considering the Labour Union as a force of sabotage and chaos, this only seemed to make Ms Hamdi more popular. However, to a lot of people, it was due to this standoff that she was dismissed from her position, less than two months after her appointment.

Ms Hamdi herself, while continuing her attacks on Taboubi, announced that the government has no intention of saving Tunisair, and that she had “escaped arrest” the morning of her dismissal, promising further clarifications in the future and proclaiming that “the current system is a cemetery for women and youth.”

In return, Moez Chakchouk, minister of transport, indicated that her dismissal was not linked to her feud with the Union, but rather to “an accumulation of errors”, “her lack of cooperation with the ministry” and accused her of “being more preoccupied with Facebook rather than work.”

Theories of an “Assisted Take-off”

This quick rise and fall of Ms Hamdi made many question whether she was being backed by a stronger political actor. Some on social media proclaimed that she was close to Ennahdha Party, the winner of the past elections and currently the biggest political party in the country. Furthermore, they have accused Ennahdha of using her as a pawn in their unofficial war with the Union Labor. This connection was however denied by both Ms Hamdi and Mr Fathi Ayadi, the spokesperson of the party.

A short lay-over or a final destination?

A few days after her dismissal, Ms Hamdi seems to remain active on social media. The question is: will she join a long list of post-2011 Tunisian ministers and CEOs who have used their brief time back in the country to embellish their resumé before going on to consulting jobs abroad? Or will this not be the last we have seen of her and she will manage to stay relevant in a fast-changing Tunisian political scene?
Only time will tell.

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