Populist hero or demagogue: who is the Tunisian president?

TUNIS – Year after year, the man now accused of trashing the Tunisian constitution sat upright in a suit and tie in front of a universit...


TUNIS – Year after year, the man now accused of trashing the Tunisian constitution sat upright in a suit and tie in front of a university lecture hall, his constitutional law notes lined up in front of him, his first-day warning to students ensuring absolute silence:

Late students will not be admitted. Talk to your neighbor during class and you will be reprimanded. Do it again, and you will be asked to leave.

“At first, I was taken aback,” recalls Fadoua El Ouni, who attended Kais Saied’s constitutional law course during her first year at the University of Carthage. “Like, are all college courses going to be like this?”

They were not. Mr. Saied was semi-legendary on campus for his haunting classrooms with his deep and ringing voice, his speech so starched and archaic that when Ms. El Ouni first heard him conversing in the Tunisian dialect of all days, it was, she said, a bodily experience.

Since Mr. Saied Suspended parliament and sacked his own prime minister last month amid mass protests against uncontrolled poverty, corruption and coronavirus, Tunisians wonder about the contradictions:

How a political novice whose stern demeanor and formal style earned him the nickname “RoboCop” became so beloved by young people that Facebook fan pages sprang up attributing him wise statements he didn’t had never spoken.

How a law professor who preached strict respect for the Constitution and practiced such personal rigor that he almost never missed a day’s work stretched the law to justify seizing power.

Above all, they argued over whether his takeover makes him a populist hero or a dangerous demagogue, whether he will save the last standing democracy from the Arab Spring or destroy it.

Those who know him see proof of both: an uncompromising ideologue who doesn’t want to listen to others, but lives modestly, shows compassion for the poor, and insists his goal is simply to wrest power from the elites. corrupted.

“His supporters see in him the last and the best hope of achieving the goals of the revolution which have never been achieved,” said Monica Marks, professor of Middle Eastern politics at New York University in Abu Dhabi. “But we know that clean people who really want to achieve good goals can sometimes turn into people who cut their heads off.”

By all accounts, longtime law professor Mr. Saied is not the type to order a pet tiger or serve guests. frozen yogurt from Saint-Tropez, just like the family of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the former dictator. His personal habits tend more towards cafes with plastic chairs and the bourgeois neighborhood where he lived with his wife and three children, even after his death. election to the presidency in 2019.

It is not personal ambition that motivates him, he said, but the sense of responsibility and the religious duty to give back power to the young and the poor who started the Tunisian revolution of 2011. In obedience to their will, he said, is to guarantee education, health care and a decent life and to purge Tunisia of corruption.

“I am running against my own will,” said Mr. Saied told an interviewer during his presidential campaign. “God said, ‘War is obligatory on you, though it is hateful to you.’ Responsibility is a heinous thing. It’s like a soldier standing on the front lines. He does not want to kill, but has been ordered to fight.

Mr. Saied’s office did not respond to an interview request.

A devout Muslim, Mr. Saied described his presidency as “ibtilaa,” an Arabic word meaning a test assigned by God that cannot be refused.

“He says he’s doing it because he has to, because people want him to do it,” said Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a Tunisian political researcher based at Syracuse University. “The idea in Islam is that everyone goes through some kind of ibtilaa. In his case, it is to be president.

All of this may sound like a bombastic cover for demagoguery. But even his detractors say his beliefs are sincere, rooted in faith and a genuine concern for the poor.

Mr Saied, who was born into a mixed family in Tunis – his mother had aristocratic ties, his father was of humble origins – entered the national scene in 2011, after the first revolutionary protests fell silent and Mr. Ben Ali fled. the country.

When protesters from marginalized areas mounted mass sit-in in Tunis to demand more radical changes, Mr. Saied was one of the few establishment figures to show solidarity. Videos of his visits quickly made the rounds on Facebook.

As a new constitution was being drafted, Mr Saied, although serving on an advisory committee, did not get one of the pens.

The exclusion clearly grated. Tunisian television often presented its comment, which was coherent: The new Constitution favored Parliament too much. Voters would be forced to choose from electoral lists promoted by political parties that only care about power. Tunisians would feel more invested in their democracy if they elected representatives they know personally.

Its prescription was a top-down political system, in which power would come from hundreds of directly elected local councils and a strong president.

If the idea seemed out of touch with reality, he was impassive. An activist who got to know the professor during the democratic transition recalled that if he was modest and generous, arguing with him was pointless. (Most interviewees requested anonymity to talk about the president, given the busy political climate.)

For many Tunisians, however, he was a television staple. It was as “if he was dictating the absolute truth about what the Constitution should be,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. “Like the voice of a prophet. Something that goes beyond the human.

In love with his austere authority, a quality that has only gained in appeal as corruption scandals dominated the news and the economy worsened, Tunisians quickly created Facebook pages inviting him to run for office. presidency.

Until 2019, he refused.

The history of his race is now famous in Tunisia: the slogan “the people want”, echoing the songs of the 2011 revolution; campaign volunteers who showed up without even asking; campaign funding was limited, he insisted, to what he had in his wallet; the aura of incorruptibility, despite scattered reports of foreign funding; victory in the second round.

“Sovereignty belongs to the people,” he told an interviewer at the time. “Everything has to start from them.

He later said he changed his mind about the presidency after a poor man approached him in tears, imploring him to run – a moment he compared to a religious sight.

It wouldn’t be the last such interaction. Videos frequently circulate online of Mr Saied kissing impoverished protesters at the presidential palace or stopping to greet ordinary Tunisians in the streets.

“This is what people don’t find in other politicians,” said Imen Neffati, a Tunisian researcher at the University of Oxford. “He stands out because the majority of them don’t care. “

Critics dismissed him as a mere law professor who, they quickly pointed out, never completed his doctorate. Others have decried his social views: he supports the death penalty, opposes equal inheritance for men and women, and has criticized open homosexuality. Those who “seek to spread homosexuality,” he said, are part of a foreign plot.

One characteristic that everyone agrees on is its steadfastness. A European ambassador and informal advisor said he insists he will never negotiate with corrupt politicians or parties, which he says rules out the party that dominates parliament, Ennahda, as well as most business and elite Tunisian politics.

Diplomats say every meeting at the presidential palace is a conference, not a dialogue. Advisors say he listens little, including his wife.

Since July 25, Saied’s security forces have placed dozens of judges, politicians and businessmen under travel bans and others under house arrest without due process, raising concern even among his supporters, that he is heading towards autocracy.

On Tuesday, his office announced that the 30-day deadline it originally set for its “exceptional measures” would be extended – for how long, he did not specify.

He is generally expected to try to change Tunisia’s electoral system and amend its constitution to expand presidential powers. Although he promised to appoint a new prime minister by Tuesday, Tarek Kahlaoui, a Tunisian political analyst, said presidential advisers told him Saied saw the post more as a “manager” than a manager. true head of government.

To justify his seizure of power, Saied invoked article 80 of the Constitution, which grants the president broad emergency powers in the event of imminent danger to the country. But constitutional experts said his ruling violated the provision, in part because it requires parliament to remain in session.

Despite all his legal precision, said several people who know him, Mr. Saied often operates on emotion and instinct.

“He feels he has been chosen by the people,” Kahlaoui said. “People took to the streets, and it was time for him to act. “

So he did.

Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Populist hero or demagogue: who is the Tunisian president?
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