Kais Saied: Who is Tunisia’s new president?
Without a party or much funding, Saied won the election with a groundswell in youth support.
Kais Saied has been sworn in as Tunisia‘s new president.
The 61-year-old law professor has no prior political experience, never held office and barely ran a campaign.
Saied sealed a resounding victory in a runoff election on October 13, largely buoyed by a groundswell of support from young voters. He won just over 72 percent of the votes, with about 27 percent of ballots cast for his media-mogul opponent Nabil Karoui.
He succeeds former President Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in office in July.
A perhaps unlikely aspiring leader in the Arab world, the austere and scholarly Saied stood apart from the other 25 candidates in the first round of Tunisia’s presidential election.
After winning that round, he announced he would not campaign ahead of the run-off election against then-imprisoned Karoui, saying it would give him an “unfair advantage”.
Observers say it’s that openness and obsession with equity that has connected with Tunisia’s youth, who, above all, see Saied as an honest leader offering them the keys to the nation’s future.
During his meteoric rise, Saied vowed to fight corruption and promote social justice, while saying access to healthcare and water is part of national security and that education would “immunise” youth against extremism.
He has been honest about his socially conservative and controversial views, which he expresses without the slightest hesitation: Homosexuality is alien to Tunisian society, capital punishment should be maintained, and men and women cannot inherit equally.
However, he has vowed he will respect the social freedoms enshrined in law in recent years.
Selim Kharrat, president of Tunisian NGO Al Bawsala, said Saied’s popularity was in part fuelled by disenfranchisement with a political system that has failed to address core economic needs.
“The current atmosphere where many politicians are caught up in corruption scandals has helped this seemingly simple man,” Kharrat told Al Jazeera after the first round of elections.
Saied’s unadorned profile has stood in stark contrast to that of Karoui, who was arrested in late August on money-laundering and tax evasion charges, Kharrat said.
“He’s received no funding from any of the big parties or abroad, notably the better-off Arab Gulf countries, and this has shielded him from any suspicion,” he added.
Saied first came into the public eye in the years following the 2011 revolution that toppled long-standing ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
A constitutional law expert, he often appeared on television stations to explain issues of public interest, which at the time mostly revolved around the drafting of the country’s 2014 constitution.
At the University of Tunis, where Saied taught on and off since the early 1990s, students described him as a man of principle who welcomed disagreement.
As Tunisia grappled with a worsening security situation that threatened to derail its transition in 2013, it was not unusual for Saied to cancel lectures to listen to what students had to say.
The professor-turned-president also refused to vote in any of the parliamentary elections that have taken place since the 2011 revolution, arguing the closed-list electoral system disproportionately favoured certain parties.
Threat to political elite
Saied’s vision for politics is as transformative as it is threatening to Tunisia’s political elite.
The president elect has promised to decentralise government and the process through which representatives are elected to the popular assembly.
He espouses a system in which Tunisians would first elect small local councils who will then choose regional representatives. It will be up to these representatives to determine national leaders.
Under this system, parliamentarians’ mandate can be terminated if they fail to address their constituents’ needs in a vague process that the jurist himself has yet to explain.
As his proposed process of decentralisation would also essentially require the assembly to vote for its own dissolution, it remains unclear how Saied would execute such an ambitious plan.
‘Not interested in power’
With Saied’s platforms seemingly diverging from presidential responsibilities, which are largely limited to foreign affairs and national defence, critics have accused him of stoking populism.
Opponents also say his utopist projects will not hold up once he is sworn in and finds himself confronted with a parliament that will, in all likelihood, shoot down his proposals.
But analysts have said Saied is more principled than populist, with the latter description more fitting for his former opponent Karoui.
Karoui formed his Qalb Tounes party only a few months before the election and has made extensive use of his Nessma TV channel to promote his philanthropic initiatives in the run up to the election.
In contrast, Saied’s views have remained the same since he entered the public sphere, Mohamed Dhia Hammami, a Tunisian political analyst, told Al Jazeera earlier this month.
“He just doesn’t seem interested in power and isn’t giving any promises. He has all these ideas about reshaping the architecture of the state to increase the power of local government, which he’s been advocating for since 2011,” Hammami said.
“He’s one of a few who can offer radical change that isn’t just about bringing a few adjustments to the current system.”