The Berlusconi of Tunisia

Presidential candidate Slim Riahi’s drive to expand his political influence through money and media has drawn criticism.

Businessman Slim Riahi, who also owns the Ettounsiya TV channel, is rumoured to be a billionaire [AP]

Youssef queued for more than half an hour early in the morning of October 26 in the coastal town of Kelibia to vote for the Free Patriotic Union (UPL) party.  

The 36-year-old carpenter did not know much about the UPL programme, but he voted for its leader, Slim Riahi, a wealthy businessman. Riahi came to prominence after becoming president of one of the country’s football clubs, Club Africain, pumping more than 60 million Tunisian dinars ($33m) into the organisation and importing European-style management. 

“I voted for my fellow supporter of Club Africain. He’s proven successful in leading the club and has invested millions; he would do the same for the country,” Youssef, who did not provide a last name, told Al Jazeera.

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Riahi, 42, is contesting the country’s first presidential election since the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The vote is scheduled for November 23. 

In addition to the football club, the political party and his other business endeavours, Riahi also owns the Ettounsiya TV channel. His fortune, rumoured to be in the billions of dollars, adds to the controversy surrounding him.

Originally from the coastal town of Enfidha, Riahi’s family moved to Libya when he was a child. He studied management at Al Fateh University in Tripoli, and went on to make his fortune in that country, later moving to the United Kingdom. 

In the 2014 parliamentary polls, Riahi ran a flashy campaign that included pop concerts – his UPL party surprisingly came in third, winning 16 seats in the legislature. He overcame prominent opposition figures under Ben Ali, including incumbent President Moncef Marzouki, who lagged behind in the race.

Riahi is playing the card of the young versus the old and the pragmatic versus the politician. He is, like many other candidates, playing on the lack of political maturity of the voters.

by - Lotfi Saibi, director of 4D Leadership House

Riahi, who promotes himself as a pragmatic leader who will improve living standards for the lower class and protect the country’s dwindling middle class, promising jobs and prosperity, has focused his presidential rallies in marginalised areas of Tunisia and impoverished districts of the capital Tunis. He has always stressed that he is, if not the only, one of the few politicians able to access such neighbourhoods and be welcomed by residents. 

In one of his latest visits to the Douar Hicher suburb of Tunis, Riahi moved from house to house, telling impoverished residents that they would be his foremost priority. The atmosphere was festive, akin to a stadium celebration.

In a recent televised interview, Riahi said his club’s supporters were behind him, noting his experience with the club – which he calls a success story – will encourage residents to vote for him. If elected, Riahi says his expertise in management and business will allow him to attract foreign investors and build a sustainable economy. According to the Pew Research Centre, 73 percent of Tunisians believe a strong economy is more important than a good democracy. 

But Riahi’s drive to expand his influence over politics through money and media has led many people to compare him to Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi.

Lotfi Saibi, director of a business organisation called 4D Leadership House, accuses Riahi of polarising the country and attacking anybody who stands in his way.

“Riahi is playing the card of the young versus the old and the pragmatic versus the politician. He is, like many other candidates, playing on the lack of political maturity of the voters. The Tunisian voter is very sensitive and you can change his mind within five minutes,” Saibi told Al Jazeera. 

“He is targeting hundreds of thousands of desperate young people by promising them jobs as a businessman. However, he hasn’t proven efficient in delivering in the past three years. I see Slim Riahi not really wanting to lead this country but truly wanting to be in power.” 

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For Saibi, Riahi’s involvement in football, business and politics is a double-edged sword that could both serve and hurt him.

“His Berlusconi attitude will certainly attract voters who see him as a businessman and football club president. Like any other populist candidate, he is targeting less educated people,” Saibi said. “However, it will not help him in the race on a national scale, because he doesn’t talk or behave as a statesman.”

Still, Riahi has become a key player in the Tunisian political scene, and could act as a kingmaker in the current government coalition negotiations. He remains a mysterious figure who is said to have enjoyed close ties to the Trabelsis, the family of Ben Ali’s wife Leila, and the Gaddafis, the family of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi – although Riahi has denied the latter.

For Youssef, none of this is of any consequence: “[Riahi] is the hope and I will vote for him once more; this time to become the president of Tunisia.

“Riahi has lots of money – he will never rob us,” Youssef added. “He has no interest in power, he has it already. He will instead invest in this country as he did in the club.”

Source: Al Jazeera