On Sunday, October 13, Tunisia held its second free presidential elections since the 2011 uprising that toppled ex-president Ben Ali and sparked the Arab Spring. Exit polls ahead of the official results on Wednesday pointed to a large victory for “anti-establishment” candidate Kais Saied, a constitutional lawyer. He won almost 73 percent of the vote on a 55 percent turnout, guaranteeing him a five-year term as head of state in Tunisia’s semi-presidential system. Remarkably, he built his campaign without the support of an established political party.
The peaceful transition from Ben Ali’s dictatorship after 2011 created space for organized forces in Tunisia, notably the Islamist party Ennahdha, as well as the drafting of a new constitution in 2014. Yet if political pluralism boomed following the uprising, the economic realities for the ordinary Tunisian did not improve. Almost nine years since the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at police harassment, unemployment stands at over 15 percent, wages are stagnant, GDP is down, and debt is up. Tens of thousands have fled the country in search of better prospects, many of them illegally.
In response to these woes, in 2017 Prime Minister Youssef Chahed declared a “total war against corruption,” increasingly viewed within Tunisia as the leading threat to the country’s democratization and the main obstacle to its economic prosperity. Soon leading to the arrest of several prominent businessmen, this initiative marked the start of a much broader campaign against nepotism, bribery, and abuse of power.
Yet even as he declared war on corruption, Chahed’s austerity measures caused commodity prices to go up dramatically, creating a pervasive popular malaise and even the emergence of voices nostalgic for Ben Ali’s regime. The post-2011 order was also discredited by the increasing phenomenon of “party tourism,” as politicians move between parties and form coalitions with ideologically opposed groups. All this has blurred the political dividing lines and weakened faith in political partisanship. The victory for a nontraditional candidate like Kais Saied marked not just a punishment for the post-2011 parties, but the diffuse hope of a “second” revolution able to “correct” the outcome of the first.
This rejection of the post-2011 party system was apparent already in the first round of the election in mid-September, in which the independent Kais Saied came in first place, ahead of media mogul Nabil Karoui. Neither has held political office before. The victory for these “outsider” candidates was, indeed, a shock, not least because Saied’s political agenda even now remains largely ambiguous to many voters. A retired professor repeatedly compared to Robocop because of his robotic charisma — and the subtle hints of humanity displayed in his voice — Saied is an expert on constitutional law, a legal expert for the Arab League and the Arab Institute for Human Rights, and, in 2014, a member of the expert committee to revise Tunisia’s Constitution. Running a self-funded, unsponsored, and low-budget campaign from a small old apartment in Tunis, he was strongly backed on social media, particularly Facebook.
If Saied benefited from a broad “anti-establishment” mood among those — especially young and educated Tunisians — who have not benefited from the legacy of the Arab Spring, he enticed them with his mastery of the Fusha Arab language, his position outside of the political status quo, and his apparent stern and unshakeable integrity. Indeed, this profile stood in contrast to his second-round rival Nabil Karoui, who is currently facing corruption and money-laundering charges. These allegations even directly concern the election itself — Karoui was recently accused of having had meetings with, and potentially paying $250,000 to, the Canadian firm Dickens & Madson, which allegedly pledged to lobby the US government and other foreign powers to support his bid for the presidency. The central figure in the liberal Qalb Tounes party, Karoui however enjoyed huge support from the mainstream media including the Nessma TV channel which he owns.
Paradoxically, given the result, Saied and Karoui were in fact the candidates who spoke directly to the public the least in the run-up to the elections. Indeed, until last Wednesday, Karoui had been in prison for charges of fiscal fraud and money laundering. His arrest on August 23, at the start of the presidential race, was criticized as a political move by prime minister Youssef Chahed to knock out a major rival. Yet Saied was also largely absent from the airwaves. He boycotted (and was ignored by) the mainstream media — and also has no social media accounts of his own. Contrasting with the mobilization for Karoui by all three top TV channels, Saied’s supporters used Facebook to rally voters and counter the propaganda that relentlessly worked to tarnish his reputation by associating him with the Muslim Brotherhood. Saied has, however, denied any connection to the Facebook pages supporting him.
Continuing in this vein, in the week before the polls, Saied announced he would suspend his campaign, insisting that it was impossible to compete on a fair footing while his opponent languished in prison. Saied the legal expert was unwilling to participate on these terms, knowing that Karoui would have been able to appeal the elections results if he lost the race. Yet this stern focus on legal process was, if anything, a boost to Saied’s campaign, appealing to an electorate put off by Karoui’s reputation as a man outside the law.
After Kauroui’s release the Wednesday before the vote, Friday night’s televised debate allowed a direct face-off between the two candidates. Karoui’s background in communication and public speaking drove expectations that he could use this opportunity to put an end to Saied’s growing support. However, Saied’s constitutional expertise and florid use of language meant it was instead he who imposed himself on the debate, as viewers watched a “teacher” educating his student. Yet while even Karoui praised Saied for his personal integrity, what was also evident in the debate was the lack of real political programs — or, indeed, of solutions to Tunisia’s severe economic crisis.
So Why Kais Saied?
There was, nonetheless, a sharp divide within the Tunisian electorate. Saied notably attracted university students, as well as educated middle-class people who do not benefit from the status quo. According to polls, a massive 86.1 percent of university-educated voters chose Saied and 13.9 percent Karoui, but among those whose education ended after primary school Saied won by a much narrower 57.3 to 42.7 percent margin. In other words, the more educated the voter, the higher their tendency to vote for Saied. He also won over 90 percent of 18–25-year olds, as against Karoui’s over 50 percent vote among those over sixty. A clear generational divide has emerged, due to not only differing education levels but the post-Arab Spring generation’s hopes of breaking up the existing establishment.
Saied was, indeed, called an “anti-systemic” candidate, but he insisted on not making any promises. Perceived as a break with the ancien regime, his political project for Tunisia focused on democratizing political decision-making with a rhetoric of keeping politicians accountable to the public for their actions.
Saied is, however, no progressive on civil rights issues. He believes that homosexuality should be kept a private matter and has stated he would oppose the legalization of gay marriage. Many see this position as aligned with that of Abdelefattah Mourou — Ennahdha’s first-round candidate — who opposes any reforms focused on greater inclusivity. Despite Saied’s repeated denials of ever belonging to any political party, some fear that Ennhadha’s call for its base to vote for him means that the Islamist party will be able to capitalize on his victory or co-opt him.
Saied also opposes any reforms to the inheritance law, considering the matter “sealed” by the Quran and arguing that his position is only a continuation of the tradition symbolized by the country’s first postindependence leader Habib Bourguiba. This conservatism on questions of homosexuality and equal rights for women in matters of inheritance in fact attracted many voters, signifying the weakness of grassroots efforts to highlight the importance of these issues.
Indeed, alternative positions were not up for debate in this contest. Even though mainstream media largely backed his opponent Nabil Karoui, it chose not to ask the perceived “liberal” candidate questions on such topics for fear of a backlash, thus leaving his positions unannounced.
Why Not Nabil Karoui?
While Karoui’s party Qalb Tounes presented him as an “anti-establishment” candidate, he has in fact long been present in Tunisia’s political scene. He was a founding member of Nidaa Tounes, the secular bloc created by president Beji Caid Essebsi in 2012, and he was involved in helping further the coalition between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda in 2014.
Karoui left Nidaa Tounes in 2017 to start his charity Khalil Tounes, named after his son who had died in a car accident. Karoui used his TV channel Nessma to broadcast his travels throughout the poorest regions of Tunisia, handing out staple foods and medicine. Karoui used his philanthropist work and personal tragedy to further his political career, and indeed benefitted greatly from the votes of poorer Tunisians in the first round of this election.
However, the second round of the contest produced a sharp reversal for Karoui. Some speak of an awakening within the poor, asserting their own dignity by rebuffing Karoui’s attempt to capitalize on their poverty. Given Saied’s vast majority, a turn among such voters must, indeed, have aided his landslide. Nevertheless, it seems Karoui did enjoy the support of those Tunisians not preoccupied with the problem of corruption, knowing that they are themselves able to navigate it in their everyday lives.
In addition to the media sector, Karoui benefitted from the support of many progressive liberals, the rich, and those who see him as a self-made businessman whose vision could provide financial opportunities for others. Indeed, Karoui attempted to capitalize on this latter image by repeatedly comparing himself to Donald Trump. Yet during the televised presidential debate on Friday, Karoui failed to connect with the same people who voted for him in the first round, most notably poor Tunisians who feel alienated by his liberal capitalist mores. Karoui promoted a technological revolution, championing a pilgrimage towards Silicon Valley as a solution to Tunisia’s economic crisis. He argued that the solution is no longer to be found in bringing foreign industrial investments, but in bringing Netflix, Google, and a wider digital culture to the Tunisian job market. Such rhetoric means nothing to Tunisia’s poor.
After the Vote
If Karoui had won, he would have enjoyed immunity from prosecution and his trial for money laundering would have been suspended until he left office. This drove people who do not traditionally vote for conservative candidates to elect Saied, in the quest to combat corruption and what they perceive as mafia-esque elites such as Karoui.
As the country plummets into its worst economic crisis since independence, society is deeply divided between an urban elite and a middle class focused on questions of civil liberties and sexual freedom, a Tunisie profonde struggling daily to put bread on the table, and a new generation which grows disenchanted with traditional politics and corruption alike.
The mood behind Sunday’s vote was, therefore, a largely negative one. As one tweet put it “I hesitated a lot before voting and not voting, and finally decided to vote, and for the first time in my life I voted against. Not out of fear – f**k them – but against Nabil Karoui and all he represents. And to reach a score which will force him and his like to disappear.” If in the 2011 uprising Tunisians chanted for “freedom” and “dignity,” today the call to protect democracy from corrupt élites is best able to rally voters. Yet as this contest again showed, what is missing from the debate is any real project for freeing the country from its years-long economic crisis, realizing the deeper ambitions of 2011.