Tunisia’s new president


Tunisians have become so fed up with the bickering politicians that they have elected since they triggered the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, that they have just chosen a president who is the complete antithesis of a political animal.

Indeed the country’s new head of state, Kais Saied, a 61-year-old retired constitutional law professor, is so lacking in charisma and charm that even loyal supporters happily describe him variously as “Robot” and “Robocop”. The dour-faced president-elect’s victory - he stood as an independent - was based on widespread disgust with the existing political establishment and its failure to grapple with an ailing economy and rising joblessness. Though predictably, they all protested to the contrary, too few politicians, even within some of the leading groups, were prepared to work together for the sake of the country rather than their own fragmented power bases.

The extent of the atomization of Tunisian politics was demonstrated by the fact that following the death in office of the first freely-elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, no fewer than 29 candidates came forward, hoping to be elected his successor.

Saied’s victory came about not because of the promises he made. Indeed the platform on which he campaigned was markedly short on clearly defined policies but long on vague pronouncements such as his desire to “empower” the people and his fitness for office because he was “a man of the law”.

His opponent in this run off election, Nabil Karoui, was completely different, except that he also emphasized that he was an outsider and not a part of the political establishment. A media magnate with a fortune based on pasta production, Karoui mounted a vigorous campaign, even though he found himself in jail, under investigation for money laundering and tax fraud. His opponent publicly condemned this incarceration and in the final week said he would not campaign because Karoui was incarcerated. This was less of a concession than it might have seemed. In fact, Saied’s campaigning was so understated as to be almost invisible. He ran hardly any advertising, gave few interviews and rarely spoke in public. In the event, Karoui was released in time to take part in a head-to-head TV debate with his rival. The program was watched by some six million people, over half the population.

It now seems clear Saied won more than three quarters of the votes cast because he came over as a decent and honestly boring individual who was entirely uninterested in razzmatazz. When Karoui was promising to somehow attract high technology jobs from Silicon Valley, Saied trotted out his banal promises that he would empower voters, especially young people, who in the event overwhelmingly appear to have backed him. Saied never made any secret of his conservative sentiments; he for instance favors the restoration of the death penalty for capital crimes. This outlook undoubtedly caused the moderate Islamist Nahda party to back him after their own candidate was knocked out in the first round.

Though the presidency has limited executive powers, the moral lead Saied may well give could persuade the Tunisian political establishment to end at least some of its selfish and inchoate ways. The electorate clearly hopes Saied will be the man to finally deliver on the promises of the revolution almost nine years ago. It has been a long wait.