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Tunisia’s Retired Law Professor Out to Remake Politics

Tunisia’s Retired Law Professor Out to Remake Politics

Monday, 14 October, 2019 - 05:15
Kais Saied casts his vote at a polling station during a second round runoff of a presidential election in Tunis, Tunisia October 13, 2019. REUTERS/Amine Ben Aziza
Asharq Al-Awsat

A retired law professor with little money, no political party and a commitment to an experimental form of direct democracy looks set to be Tunisia’s new president.

Two exit polls projected that Kais Saied handily won Sunday’s runoff election against media magnate Nabil Karoui, though no formal results have been announced.

“I did not make traditional promises or a traditional program ... but new ideas that can be realized.. today we entered a new stage in the history of Tunisia,” Saied told Reuters after the first round of the election in September.

Tunisians also gave him most votes in the first round against an array of veteran political leaders, the sharpest rejection of Tunisia’s ruling elite since the 2011 uprising that ushered in democratic rule.

“He convinced us that change is possible and in our own hands,” said Bassam Naffati, a 22-year-old biology student who volunteered for Saied’s campaign.

The 61-year-old, speaking in his usual ultra-formal style of classical Arabic, has described his success as “like a new revolution”.

Though he did well in opinion polls for months, his lack of an established political or media base made him a less familiar figure to many Tunisians than Karoui.

Both are relative outsiders, but they are very different.

Karoui has a television station and a large election team. He spent most of the election period in custody on suspicion of tax evasion and money laundering, which he denies.

Supporters of Saied, who spent so little on his campaign that Tunisians say it cost the price of a coffee and a packet of cigarettes, present him as a paragon of personal integrity.

His austere approach is plain in his campaign headquarters: a small upstairs apartment in an old downtown building with no elevator, broken windows and peeling paintwork equipped with little more than a small television and some plastic chairs.

“I knew him up close in 2011 after the revolution, during the first movement of youth against the old guard. He was one of the few who understood our demands. He listened to us,” said Sonia Chriti, 40, a former student of Saied.

A former law faculty colleague, Jawher Ben Mubarek, said that during those tumultuous days they would wander late into the night through the narrow streets of the Kasbah and the grand colonial boulevards downtown, discussing politics.

“We would stop a lot and talk to the protesters about their demands,” he said.

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