Zine Ben Ali won a fifth term as Tunisia’s president in 2009, winning nearly 90% of the vote in a contest in which international monitors were prohibited. Tunisia’s most recent presidential elections indicate that the days of rigged elections are over. For this alone—along with what remains eight years later of a relatively free press—its citizens have reason to be proud, despite stormy political weather ahead.
As of October Tunisia has a new president.
Despite his previous lack of name recognition, Kais Saïed, an obscure legal scholar, defeated his opponent, businessman Nabil Karoui, in a landslide. It was Tunisia’s second free presidential election since the 2011 revolt, marking the beginning of a new complex era in the country’s history. The 2011 uprising sent disgraced President Zine Ben Ali and his entourage packing. They fled the country, with as much gold from Tunisia’s national bank as they could carry, to permanent exile and refuge in Saudi Arabia.
Saïed’s election suggests that a great majority is still firmly committed to the values of 2011: a more economically prosperous, socially fair, and less corrupt country.
Saïed’s election suggests that a great majority is still firmly committed to the values of 2011: a more economically prosperous, socially fair, and less corrupt country. The spirit of the nationalism that propelled Tunisia to independence in 1957, rekindled by the Jasmine Revolution of 2010-2011 remains alive despite eight harsh and disappointing years. But that spirit has been badly bruised and needs reviving.
With a few exceptions, mainstream media in Europe, Tunisia’s main trading partner, as well as in the USA and in MENA countries in general, have regarded Saïed’s election victory positively. The high level of participation and few complaints of voter fraud suggest a far more open electoral environment than existed during the Ben Ali days. Saïed garnered support from both the country’s main Islamist party, Ennahdha, but also from secular strata.
The details of the election are straight forward enough.
At the heart of Kais Saïed’s victory was his ability to sell himself by convincing the electorate of his stature as an honest man. At the same time, however, he hardly elaborate on any programmatic themes beyond mere generalities. Tunisian voters were less concerned with his political program—or lack thereof—than with his personal integrity, demonstrating their longing for “a clean politician” in a body politic that even since 2011 has been plagued by incompetence, corruption, and a lack of vision for the country’s future.
While it might be slightly exaggerated to call Saïed’s victory “a mandate,” the extent of his win provides him with that classic “window of opportunity’ to make good on his election promise to help Tunisia extract itself from the doldrums in which it has wallowed—essentially rudderless—for the past eight years.
Objectively looking at the past eight years, Tunisia is walking a thin line, the thinnest of lines, between recovery and collapse. Referring to it as “a success story” is overstating the case. It would be accurate to assess it as having not quite collapsed on the order of Egypt, Yemen, Syria, or Libya, but it would not take much to trigger an implosion.
Saïed will have to deal with multiple socio-economic forces still very much extant from the Ben Ali days.
Saïed will have to deal with multiple socio-economic forces still very much extant from the Ben Ali days: among which are the cultural demands of the Ennahdha Party, the most organized political party to emerge from 2011, and foreign pressures for economic reform and structural adjustment from the World Bank and IMF, still very much players in the Tunisian reality.
Given those factors, addressing the problems that face Tunisia would be a tall order for anyone elected president. Despite the mantra repeated in the West—certainly here in the United States—that Tunisia is “the only Arab Spring success story,” in fact, – its “success” is fragile. Indeed, its social mix is increasingly explosive, its economy stagnating, its foreign debt mounting, and its terrorist threat enhanced by the collapse of order in Libya and the return of thousands of Tunisian jihadists.
Further sharpening social tensions, the flat economy is prompting Tunisian youth to leave by the thousands, if not tens of thousands risking uncertain and dangerous migration across the Mediterranean. Others have voluntarily fled the country to join the ranks of ISIS and similar organizations to die in Syria, Libya, and other countries.
The Challenges Ahead
Not only will Saïed have a plate-full of issues including a deepening overall social crisis, he also begins his term with limited means of implementing a needed in-depth reform program. The constitution that Tunisians voted on in 2014 limits presidential powers and substantially increases those of the National Assembly, the country’s parliament. Gone are the days when a Bourguiba or Ben Ali could basically dictate the country’s domestic and foreign policy agenda.
Saïed will have to overcome the newly limited powers of the Tunisian presidency.
Hence, first and foremost, Saïed will have to overcome the newly limited powers of the Tunisian presidency. While more than a mere figurehead, today a Tunisian president requires coordination with the more influential parties in the National Assembly. It is they, in this case the Ennahdha Party and its allies in the Assembly, who have veto power over his plans rather than vice versa.
More troubling, however, is the fact that Saïed provided few indications of his program to address the myriad problems Tunisia is experiencing.
Kais Saïed’s Path to Electoral Victory
As fighting the country’s pervasive corruption was one of Saïed’s main campaign platforms, perhaps even his only one, the fact that the media magnate Nabil Karoui spent much of the run up to the election’s second round cooped up in prison on corruption charges might help explain the lopsided results.
Kais Saïed garnered a hefty 72% of the vote, securing 2.7 million votes against Karoui’s one million, an impressive win. A solid 60% of eligible voters cast ballots. Perhaps even more significant, Saïed carried 85% of the youth vote, those under 30 years of age.
At first glance, for a candidate who seemingly “came out of nowhere,” with no previous political base of which to speak, a stiff persona, and a campaign that was high on generalities but lacking specifics, it is difficult to explain just how it is that he did so well.
Saïed gave the impression of being a man of integrity in a country fed up with political corruption.
Saïed, who had no political organization or experience, received a great deal of television coverage and participated in events organized by civil society to gain familiarity. He also did a lot of door-to-door campaigning and traveled to some 100 cities, stopping at cafes and markets to engage voters. And even though his campaign was short on policy specifics, he gave the impression of being a man of integrity in a country fed up with political corruption, while his main opponent in the run-offs was tainted by it.
Saïed promised “a new season of hope,” describing his election as “a new revolution.” On social media sites, his words resonated that hope, so pervasive during the first months of the “Jasmine Revolution” of 2011 but soon smothered by the realities of life in post-Ben Ali Tunisia, shall be reignited.
Can Kais Saïed deliver on his promises?