Posted by Elly Rostoum on October 16, 2019 in Blog

“A revolution within the constitutional legitimacy,” that’s how Kais Saied, the 61-year old newly elected president of Tunisia described his landslide victory, having secured more than 73 percent of the votes. "Thank you to those who opened a new page in history. For those who did not vote for me, thank you too, because they have chosen freely,” he said.

Saied is a long-time constitutional scholar and professor of law at the University of Tunis. An outsider during Ben Ali’s regime, Saied is a conservative from the Ariana district in the capital of Tunis, a heavily Islamist enclave. In 2014, he served on the committee of experts that supported parliament during the drafting of Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution.

Despite his conservative platform opposing LGBTQ rights, equal inheritance for men and women and supporting the death penalty, Saied’s landslide victory was largely thanks to a strong turnout from Tunisia’s youth. According to the Sigma polling institute, an estimated 90 percent of 18 to 25 year-olds voted for Saied, compared with 49.2 percent of voters over 60 years of age. Saied’s victory was also resounding – he won by more than an impressive 1.7 million votes. His rival, Nabil Karoui, who was newly released from jail for tax fraud and money laundering charges, only secured an estimated 1 million votes.

Saied’s victory ended both a highly contentious, but also, a difficult to predict elections. More than 20 candidates ran in Tunisia’s only 2nd democratic elections since the Jasmine revolution. What is striking – and important to pay attention to – is that Tunisians gave a landslide victory to the relatively obscure candidate – and in so doing, resoundingly rejected the establishment, including Ennahda – the opposition party.

The rejection of the establishment is telling. Saied was an independent candidate with little political experience. His somber disposition and insistence on giving speeches in classical Arabic, in lieu of the Tunisian dialect, earned him the not-so-affectionate nickname of Robocop. Yet, his commitment to eradicating corruption and support of decentralization efforts to empower local governance of cities and municipalities spoke to the voters.

More than a decade after the revolution, Tunisian are still struggling with excessively high inflation and unemployment rates, and tepid economic growth. Yet, for Nabil Karoui, a media tycoon who used the largess of his vast wealth through charities to channel support for his candidacy (running even while incarcerated), the old political adage of patronage for political support seems to have failed. Notably, Saied’s victory is also an indirect win for the Islamist Ennahda party, which astutely endorsed Saied’s candidacy after their own’s Adbelfattah Mourou’s failed presidential run.

In Tunisia, the president’s portfolio is limited to issues of defense and foreign affairs - areas that rank much lower in terms of priorities for the average Tunisian. Nonetheless, Saied’s victory strongly underscores Tunisians’ hope (still) for the ethos of their revolution: a’shughl, al’horiyah, al-karama (work, freedom, and dignity). Saied strove to embody those values – he ran a campaign that championed integrity and even announced that he would not campaign while his rival was imprisoned. If anything, this election has shown that Tunisians have chosen change, even if championed by an Islamist-backed, conservative head of state. This should give Tunisia’s establishment a moment of pause

As Director of the U.S.-MENA Experiential Partnership at AAIF, I had the opportunity to spend 10 days with 12 municipal officials were part of the historic 2018 Tunisian elections, which ushered in the first generation of elected officials at the local level. The Partnership is a pioneering initiative spearheaded by AAIF, with support from the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which pairs Arab American public servants with newly-elected officials in the Middle East and North Africa region for a year-long co-mentorship exchange that champions decentralization, good governance and public private partnerships. The Tunisian delegation visited Washington, DC, during the heydays of the presidential campaign. In my conversations with them, they cautioned for the dire need to address the remaining structural economic and social challenges that plague the country. Most of all, however, despite the diversity of their political inclinations, they all expressed an enduring optimism for the future of Tunisia and a steadfast commitment to its success as the Arab world’s most promising democracy.