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The Unlikely Leader: The Man Who Made No Campaign Promises Becomes Tunisia’s President

kais saied
Photo: FETHI BELAID / AFP ©AFP ⁃ FETHI BELAID

If there is one person eligible for the Tunisian discovery of the year award, it is Kais Saied, who was elected president of the country on 13 October 2019.

The 61-year-old constitutionalist and former law professor was ‘invented’ by Tunisia’s youth as a viable presidential candidate. From unclassifiable conservative outsider, Saied metamorphosed into the embodied response to corruption, power-hungry politicians and other ‘diseases’ afflicting liberal democracies.

He won 18.4 per cent of the vote in the first round of the elections that had a turnout of 49 per cent, but won the run-off by a landslide, taking 72.71 per cent of the vote, in absolute figures almost twice as much as his predecessor Beji Caid Essebsi, with a turnout of 58 per cent.

Ignoring all the rules of modern-day campaigning, the political novice, nicknamed ‘Robocop’ for his stiff and dour manner, will in all probability make history as the candidate without a party, a programme or a budget.

“I was, I am and I will always be independent and I did not run an election campaign but an explanatory campaign,” Saied said in an interview with France 24. “Those, and especially the youth, who voted for me understood that we’ve entered a new era.”

Born on 22 February 1958 in the north-eastern coastal city Beni Khiar as a son of a civil servant, Saied earned an advanced degree in public law from the University of Tunis (1985) and a diploma from the International Academy of Constitutional Law in Tunisia and the International Institute of Human Law in Italy (1986). He started his career teaching law at the University of Sousse in 1986, followed by a position at the University of Tunis from 1999 to his retirement in 2018.

“In our ranks, Kais Saied has a reputation for being uncompromising and inexorable,” a former colleague in Tunis told Fanack. “We all know he never got his PhD because he refused to complete some minor amendments asked by his examiners.”

Saied combined his academic work with several committee positions in the field of constitutional law. He first engaged with politics in 2011, when he participated in the Kasbah sit-ins that ousted the post-revolution interim government made up of ministers from the old regime. As a leading authority on constitutional law, he was a regular commentator for both print and broadcast media.

“Saied personifies the archetype of the ideal Tunisian citizen,” Tasnim Chrichi, the director of independent think tank The Jasmine Foundation, told Fanack. “Tunisians have always attached great importance to academic background.”

“For the first time in their history, Tunisians will not be ruled by a paternal figure but by a sort of ‘older brother’, a fellow citizen,” philosopher Youssef Sedick said in a radio interview.

Politically shaped in the days following the overthrow of autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Saied repeatedly called Tunisia’s representative democracy anachronistic and political parties obsolete. “The Tunisian people can be trusted to govern themselves. And It’s my job to provide them with the necessary tools,” he told French magazine Jeune Afrique in the run-up to the elections in September 2019.

In May 2011, when most Tunisians were hailing the first post-revolutionary electoral law as a democratic victory, Saied and several others predicted a remake of the dictatorship. In 2016, the Mouassissoun (‘founders’) network was created via a Facebook page to support this idea. Since then, a growing group of members has been preparing the ground for a switch to a form of direct democracy.

“Imagine an organic growth, by word of mouth, of a gang of enthusiasts,” Kais Karoui, an ICT specialist and member of the network, explained to Fanack. “Kais Saied was the most vigorous, went tirelessly door to door and frequented underprivileged areas where politicians seldom come.”

Saied and his network advocate a revitalization of local assemblies, which emerged spontaneously during the 2011 revolution, in each delegation. Their members would be elected via a first-past-the-post voting system and their terms of office would be revocable. One of their members, drawn by lot, would represent them at the regional level.

The regional councils would then elect their representatives at the central level, to be composed of 276 deputies instead of the current 217, to better reflect local wishes. Khalil Abbess, a sociological researcher and Mouassissoun member, predicts a clash between the Tunisian people and parliament in the medium term. “I am sure political parties will oppose our project, [arguing that] adopting [it] would be suicidal. But Saied is backed by the citizenry. Counted in votes, the president has more legitimacy than all the political parties together,” he said.

Saied’s meetings with young people in the marginalized regions, the epicentre of the 2011 revolution, affected his ideas on democracy. “I don’t make promises; Tunisians are tired of promises. I want to talk to their minds,” he stated in the televised presidential debate two days before the second round of voting. “I remember the Tunisians in Kasserine, Makther, Majel Bouabbes. They were the leaders in the debates, the people with ideas, plans, programmes. Those citizens are thinking about solutions to create wealth in their own region.”

He went on to criticize the arbitrary law enforcement, lack of judicial independence and disbelief in national sovereignty, articulating voters’ top three concerns.

“I chose a Tunisia with less social injustice, less inequality and a fair justice system. A country in which we can develop in a more peaceful climate guaranteed by a more responsible state,” social entrepreneur Lotfi Hamdi said in a video message on Facebook after casting his vote, echoing the vast majority of Saied’s supporters.

Pragmatically, Hamdi and other so-called ‘liberals’ shrugged aside Saied’s controversial arguments in favour of the death penalty and against LGBTQ+ rights and equal inheritance rights for women. “Saied mirrors the values of mainstream Tunisia,” said Abbass.

Others were less accommodating. “Saied is homophobic, misogynous, xenophobic, ignorant. He’s almost autistic. This is a very great danger to democracy in Tunisia!” said LGBTQ+ activist and lawyer Mounir Baatour to franceinfo Afrique.

“There is some diversity of viewpoints within our network about these issues,” Abbass acknowledged. “We won’t hesitate to place them on the agenda. Kais Saied is the most balanced and mediagenic of us, and hence the most ‘presidential’, but not ‘the leader’ of our network.”

Despite his political shortcomings – notably his lack of experience – Saied has proven he is a master of political timing. “We decided to skip the 2014 presidential elections because our politics were defined by identity issues in the first years after the revolution,” Saied loyalist Karoui said. “The decisive moment came after the 2014 elections when there was a boy, a teenager, who clung to Saied and asked crying, ‘Why did you betray us?’ Kais Saied felt that as a desperate plea [and decided to run for president].”

Cynics could argue that the boy cannot be disappointed since Saied made voters no promises during his ‘explanatory’ campaign. Realistically, Tunisia’s political context is not conducive to success, but for some voters at least, Saied’s election is a victory in itself.

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