By Electing Kais Saied, Tunisians Recast Their National Politics

The Tunisian electorate has handed the independent candidate Kais Saied a huge victory. With 73 percent of the vote against Nabil Karoui’s 27 percent, he now has a mandate. But to do what precisely? Saied’s election signals the electorate’s partial repudiation of a fractious political class that is widely viewed as ineffective and corrupt. In this sense, his triumph echoes the rise of populist politics throughout the globe. But Saied’s critique of the political establishment goes much further than other populist leaders. In no uncertain terms, he has questioned the very utility of Tunisia’s formal political parties and its elected national assembly. Demanding a “total reversal of the power pyramid,” he has called for the election of local people’s councils whose sacred mission would be to speak for the “people’s will.” Indeed, Jacques Rousseau has come to Carthage.

Can Saied forge a partnership with the very institutions he has assailed? His young followers find in this 61-year old professor of constitutionalism a morally impeccable hero: a stalwart Robocop-like character whose socially conservative, neo-Islamist nationalism offers hope for putting the country on the righteous path. It is unclear, however, how Saied’s dissonant blend of constitutionalism and direct democracy will help move Tunisia beyond an abiding crisis of political disillusionment and economic paralysis. Having barely uttered a word on economic reform, which is the key challenge facing Tunisia, much will hinge not on the president (whose domestic powers are limited) but rather on the new parliament. Thus the Islamist Ennahda—which took the largest share of seats in parliament (52 out of 217) in the October 6 legislative elections and then backed Saied to the hilt—now faces an uphill struggle when it comes to forming a stable and coherent majority government. Indeed, ideological and social polarization could undermine the forging of any kind of minimally effective government.

It is unclear, however, how Saied’s dissonant blend of constitutionalism and direct democracy will help move Tunisia beyond an abiding crisis of political disillusionment and economic paralysis.

If the effort to create that government is just beginning, the stakes are high for Tunisia and for the wider region. Bordered on the east by a collapsed Libyan state whose often porous frontier presents a serious security threat, and on the west by an Algerian state whose sclerotic military establishment is deeply unpopular, if Tunisia stumbles, the entire Maghreb will feel its pain. Thus, the country needs as many regional and global friends as it can muster. Saied has tethered his populist vision to the aspirations of a youthful electorate that thirsts for a new message of collective redemption and renewal. Maintaining his revolutionary aura as a leader who demands justice both at home and abroad—while defending Tunisia’s fundamental state interests in a volatile region and global arena—will be no easy task for the country’s ambitious new president.

Populist Dynamics Pose Opportunities and Dangers for Ennahda

Celebrated1 in the streets of Tunis and other towns big and small, Saied’s meteoric rise to stardom has sparked a sense of a national reawakening. This sudden shift from despondency to a revived political passion has created a window of opportunity to mobilize Tunisians who felt totally abandoned by the system. But the wave of euphoria that Saied helped to create has also produced a new political landscape whose uncertainties will pose tough challenges, especially for the new president’s newfound supporters in the electorate and in the new parliament.

The most important of these allies is Ennahda. Its leaders may not have fully anticipated the gathering populist storm, but in the months preceding the elections they were surely aware of a darkening political horizon. Indeed, the effort of Nabil Karoui—Tunisia’s millionaire media mogul—to mobilize popular support by bringing truckloads of medical services and supplies to the impoverished hinterlands underscored Ennahda’s growing vulnerability in sectors that it had viewed as a dependable source of votes. Moreover, Ennahda co-founder and leader Rachid Ghannouchi was facing growing opposition, especially from rival party leaders, some of whom argued that he had diluted Ennahda’s Islamic credentials by making concessions to secular leaders. Thus, when Karoui declared his intention to run for the presidency and then created a political party that seemed poised to make real gains, Ennahda faced the possibility that it could lose in the parliament, where Karoui’s Heart of Tunis Party seemed poised to make major gains, and in the presidency, which seemed within Karoui’s reach according to public opinion polls.

The effort of Nabil Karoui—Tunisia’s millionaire media mogul—to mobilize popular support by bringing truckloads of medical services and supplies to the impoverished hinterlands underscored Ennahda’s growing vulnerability in sectors that it had viewed as a dependable source of votes.

Seeking to stem these potential losses, Ghannouchi persuaded Abdelfattah Mourou, the speaker of the House and an Ennahda stalwart, to enter the presidential race. This move was risky: in the years preceding the 2019 election, Ennahda had made an often-unrewarded bid to avoid antagonizing secular forces. Not running for the presidency was a key part of this power-sharing strategy, one that Ghannouchi had stuck to despite growing disapproval within the party from leaders who feared that Ghannouchi was diluting Ennahda’s identity. These concerns grew following his May 2016 declaration that, henceforth, Ennahda was only a political party rather than an Islamist movement. The challenge Ghannouchi now faced was how to mollify his critics without signaling to his secular rivals that Ennahda was no different from other Islamist parties, whose strategy was to use democracy to advance a religious agenda.

Mourou provided the best hope of walking this fine line. A pluralist and political moderate, he promised to put aside his allegiance to Ennahda and represent all Tunisians. But Ennahda’s leaders failed to fully appreciate or anticipate that a vast swath of young people was fed up with politics as usual. Indeed, the youth made its frustrations clear during the first round of presidential elections. Although only 45 percent of registered voters went to the polls, those who voted chose outsiders, with Saied coming in first with 18 percent, and Karoui with 15 percent. Finishing third with 13 percent, Mourou’s defeat seemed to signal Ennahda’s declining influence2—and even the possibility that it might sink with the rest of the establishment ship.

Ennahda’s Smart—if Tricky—Embrace of Kais Saied

Paradoxically, however, it turned out that this third-place finish actually worked in Ennahda’s favor. Imprisoned on charges of money laundering, Karoui tried to pose as a kind of a rich yet anti-establishment Robin Hood who was the victim of a campaign to silence him. However, he could not overcome the widespread perception that he was part of the very corrupt elite he was assailing. Released from prison days before the second round of elections, Karoui’s lackluster performance during the October 11 presidential debate accentuated the stark differences between him and Saied, whose subdued if defiant verbal assault on the existing power structure inspired respect across ideological and social lines.

Saied’s capacity to inspire widespread support provided a nearly perfect solution to the dilemma facing Ennahda: how to reestablish its credentials as an Islamist party without competing for the country’s highest political office.

Indeed, Saied’s capacity to inspire widespread support provided a nearly perfect solution to the dilemma facing Ennahda: how to reestablish its credentials as an Islamist party without competing for the country’s highest political office. Indeed, Saied’s political, social, and religious rhetoric was consonant with Ennahda’s normative and spiritual agenda. A well-respected popular scholar of constitutional law whose modest lifestyle and earnest demeanor personified everything that Karoui was not, Saied used his eloquent classical Arabic to communicate a vision of a reclaimed national, Arab, and Islamic identity. Moreover, his opposition to legalizing homosexuality and his equally strong opposition to reforming the inheritance law to guarantee equality between men and women signaled a distinct social conservatism.3 While insisting 4 that he was not a Salafist or beholden to any political party, Saied was featured in a video in which he invoked religious themes against a background of traditional music, thus telegraphing a message of moral rectitude that surely inspired Ennahda’s followers.

No wonder, then, that the party endorsed Saied and sang his praises in an electoral campaign that highlighted religious themes. His candidacy helped Ennahda walk a fine line: on the one hand, it allowed the party to bandwagon with a leader whose moralistic message chimed with its own, thus helping it regroup and secure a very respectable first place finish in a parliamentary election. On the other hand, with the very real prospect of a Saied presidency, Ennahda could back a president who was not linked to any Islamist party and who had widespread support—even from Tunisians who do not espouse—and even oppose—an Islamist agenda. Saied was thus a godsend5 for Ennahda.

Possible Tensions in a Saied-Ennahda Entente

It is noteworthy that Saied’s capacity to appeal across the Islamist-secular divide comes with baggage that could complicate cooperation between the new president and Ennahda. As he has made clear,6 his social conservatism coexists with a radical political agenda that seeks to replace or bypass formal institutions via the creation of directly elected people’s councils throughout Tunisia’s diverse provinces. Saied makes no bones about his desire to foster institutions that speak for the general will of what he deems a culturally or religiously unified society and people. He insists that this revolutionary program will coexist with a strong commitment to constitutionalism and legality. However, when asked how he intends7 to reconcile his devotion to a revolutionary project with his commitment to the 2015 Constitution, Saied often responds vaguely, sometimes hinting that if the parliament musters two thirds of its members, the constitution might be changed to advance his quest for a bottom-up, people’s democracy.

This ambiguity could in time create problems for Ennahda. The problem is not merely that Saied forged his utopian vision outside a political arena with which he apparently had little contact. The deeper problem is that Ennahda has spent nearly a decade forging an identity as a member of a western style competitive parliamentary democracy. Having hitched its cart to a populist president, the party must now find a way to cooperate with a leader who seems suspicious of the very formal political system that not only made Saied’s election possible, but one that remains vital if Ennahda is to sustain its place in the political system.

One possibility is that Ennahda’s leaders might encourage Saied to set aside his dreams of revolutionary transformation and focus instead on concrete challenges. These include not merely renovating (as opposed to dismantling) an ailing political system, but also tackling the painful task of market economic reform, a topic about which Saied has had little to say (other than his contention that the public sector must be given priority). But if Ennahda and Saied come down from the mountaintop of political moralizing, they will risk alienating their young followers—especially those who are bound to oppose economic reforms that will surely impose hardships on Tunisia’s poor and on its struggling middle class. Absent a windfall of economic support to cushion the blow, it will be hard for Saied and Ennahda to square this particular circle.

Coalition Building and the Challenge of Ideological Polarization  

In the coming months Saied and Ennahda will both face two key challenges. The first is to forge an alliance of parties that will not only secure at least 109 out of 217 seats but one that will also articulate a common political and social program. If this turns out not to be possible, Tunisia’s leaders might try to fall back on a system of power-sharing and consensus. Apart from the possibility that there may be no plausible alliance that could revive a consensus system, the fact of the matter is that it was precisely this system that helped produce legislative gridlock over the last few years. Yet if Tunisia cannot afford to revive this discredited model, it has no easy path forward to a majoritarian system in which a government rules and a loyal opposition opposes.

Apart from the possibility that there may be no plausible alliance that could revive a consensus system, the fact of the matter is that it was precisely this system that helped produce legislative gridlock over the last few years.

Indeed, in the wake of the elections, Tunisia will now boast a fragmented parliament: Ennahda has 52 seats, followed by Heart of Tunis with 38, the politically liberal Democratic Current (DC) with 22, Al-Karama—a Salafist oriented party—with 21, Abir Moussi’s Parti Destourien Libre (PDL) with 17, and former Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s Tahya Tounis. In addition, myriad independent party lists fill in the picture.  Al-Karama and PDL represent the two ends of the ideological spectrum and thus will be nonstarters for Ennahda. DC’s Mohamed Abbou has precluded an alliance with Ennahda because, he argues, it does not support a “neutral” state. As for Heart of Tunis, the bad blood between it and Ennahda, coupled with the prospect that Karoui will stand trial, make it unlikely (at least for the moment) that the party that constitutes the second biggest bloc will be in a position to work with Ennahda.

Still, one cannot discount the possibility that party memberships will shift in ways that will open space for reaching the magic number of 109. While Ennahda’s leaders have denounced what they call “political tourism,” they would probably not object if MPs from the independent lists, and even from Heart of Tunis, would propose a working partnership—and perhaps even join the ranks of Ennahda. Given that the alternative to alliance building is new elections, there is real incentive to cut a deal.

Saied could play a pivotal role in encouraging such a deal. If he is going to be a peacemaker, however, he will have to confront a second challenge: growing ideological polarization. Although the electoral results suggest a fragmented political map, the abiding mistrust of Ennahda (not to mention Al-Karama) that many secular leaders will carry into the parliament could widen the Islamist-secular divide. Saied has called for national unity; but he has also suggested that the Islamist-secular divide is an invention. Left to their own devices, he implies, Tunisians will discover their common bonds. This all-too-familiar populist stance belittles the very real and admirable pluralism of Tunisian society. Saied must contend with this pluralism and make it work for—rather than against—democracy.

Engaging with and Avoiding Regional Conflicts

Will Saied be up to this task? Much will depend on which part of his persona is driving his decisions: the populist revolutionary, the social conservative, or the modern constitutionalist. Saied might be tempted to manage these potentially clashing orientations by turning his attention from the domestic arena to regional conflicts, not least of which is the Palestinian issue. On that score, it is worth recalling that during the second presidential debate8 he warned that while he had absolutely nothing against Jews, Tunisians who pursue peace with the “Zionist entity” are committing “treason.” This warning surely underscores a basic and compelling fact: Tunisia will never establish diplomatic relations with Israel so long as there is no solution that provides lasting justice to the Palestinians. But Saied’s harsh words could also backfire by inspiring radical Islamists while sparking fears among secular leaders that “outbidding” on the Palestinian issue will strengthen their political rivals.

Tunisia will never establish diplomatic relations with Israel so long as there is no solution that provides lasting justice to the Palestinians.

Such concerns underscore the complex nexus between Tunisian domestic politics and regional dynamics. With Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey vying for influence in Libya’s civil war and Algeria’s military defying democratic protests—not to mention the continued efforts of many of these states to influence Tunisia’s internal politics—Saied will be best served by embracing the principles of reconciliation and regional peacemaking while steering clear of the new Arab Cold War raging on the other side of his country’s borders and in the wider Middle East.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here

1 Source is in French.
2 Source is in French.
3 Source is in French.
4 Source is in Arabic.
5 Source is in French.
6 Source is in French.
7 Source is in French.
8 Source is in Arabic.