How Tunisia’s ‘Robocop’ Kais Saied was propelled to the presidency

The independent candidate, who has cast an isolated figure, won over the country’s youth to secure victory with 72% of the votes

TOPSHOT - Conservative academic Kais Saied celebrates his victory in the Tunisian presidential election in the capital Tunis on October 13, 2019. Saied won a landslide victory in Tunisia's presidential runoff, sweeping aside his rival, media magnate Nabil Karoui, state television Wataniya said. It said he scooped almost 77 percent of the vote, compared to 23 percent for Karoui. / AFP / Fethi Belaid
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Tunis woke bleary eyed on Monday morning to a new week and a new president. Prompted by exit polls suggesting the landslide victory of retired law professor Kais Saied, Tunis residents took to the streets in their thousands to celebrate the unlikely outsider’s victory, signalling what many see as a clear break from past stagnation and a genuine signal of hope in the future.

Whether Mr Saied will be able to fulfil those hopes remains unclear. An independent candidate who cast an isolated figure against the professional teams of advisers that surrounded many of his rivals, the task facing Mr Saied is significant.

Ahead of him lies a faltering economy, endemic unemployment and an international political sphere unsure what to make of the modest law professor from the small coastal town of Béni Khiar, around an hour’s drive from Tunis.

The professor scooped up 72.71% of the votes, the country's electoral commission said in a televised statement on Monday. He garnered 2.7 million votes to one million received by his rival, TV boss Nabil Karoui, who was released from prison on Wednesday where he had been held awaiting trial on charges of tax evasion and money laundering.

“Kais Saied is a man of the law, “ 18-year-old Skanda Mahmoudi said, echoing the thoughts of many. “I like the way he thinks.”

Approximately 90 per cent of Tunisia’s 18 to 25-year-olds voted for Mr Saied, according to Sigma Conseil, compared with 49.2 per cent of those over 60. Tunisia’s youth have been a common theme in Mr Saied’s campaign. The electoral commission said turnout was 55 per cent.

Speaking after the exit polls were released last night, Mr Saied was at pains to thank them specifically "for turning a new page," and promised to try to build "a new Tunisia".

Mr Saied’s mixture of social conservatism and his vision for a significantly more engaged democracy appears to have struck a chord among Tunisia’s young, where unemployment runs as high as 34.83 per cent.

Neither left nor right wing, Mr Saied’s platform defies traditional categorisation. On the one hand, he has argued for the return of the death penalty (currently on moratorium) and argued against former President Essebsi’s proposals for reforming Tunisia’s inheritance laws.

On the other hand, his small team of close advisers is known to include veteran left-winger Rida Mekki, whose political views have earned him the nickname, “Rida Lenin”. Mr Saied has also shown himself to be stridently opposed to the normalisation of relations with Israel, branding any suggestion “high treason” during a recent television debate.

A central plank of Mr Saied’s platform has been the radical overhaul of Tunisia’s democracy, replacing traditional party structures with a “democracy of individuals”. Rather than the current system of directly elected deputies, Mr Saied has championed a three-tiered democratic model. Under his proposals, members of the country’s legislative would be appointed by regional councils, themselves nominated by the country’s small municipal councils whose members would be elected upon the basis of their character, rather than any party or ideological affiliation.

Few doubt Mr Saied’s sincerity in this regard. An interview with this writer some years ago rapidly morphed into a brief lecture on the nature of Tunisia’s democracy, including whiteboard illustrations.  However, to achieve the constitutional changes he needs to enact his system, Mr Saied requires a two-thirds majority in Tunisia’s recently elected parliament, where no party was able to secure a definite majority and a government has yet to be formed.

"Given his mandate relative to the incredibly fractured parliament, this is about as good a chance as he's going to get to push through systemic change," Sharan Grewal a visiting fellow at Brookings told The National.

“That said, Saied will be constrained by a constitution that, in spirit, makes the president weaker than the head of the government, (prime minister) and parliament. However, as a constitutional law professor, Saied also knows that the constitution is relatively vague in detailing the duties of each executive, and his popular mandate may allow him to assert his authority.”

However, while Mr Saied’s second round run for the presidency was supported by moderate Islamists, Ennahda, who hold a plurality in parliament, his radical overhaul of the party system is unlikely to be as well received.