Kais Saied: Austere upstart poised to be Tunisia’s next president

Backed by Islamist party and taking 77% of the vote, the anti-establishment political newcomer is a social conservative committed to decentralizing the Tunisian political system

Conservative academic Kais Saied, center, flanked by his wife Ichraf Chebil, right, celebrates his victory in the Tunisian presidential election in the capital Tunis on October 13, 2019. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)
Conservative academic Kais Saied, center, flanked by his wife Ichraf Chebil, right, celebrates his victory in the Tunisian presidential election in the capital Tunis on October 13, 2019. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)

AFP — Political newcomer Kais Saied, who won a landslide victory Sunday in Tunisia’s presidential election runoff, is a conservative academic whose rigid manner has earned him the nickname “Robocop.”

According to exit polls, Saied delivered a stunning defeat to rival upstart Nabil Karoui, taking almost 77 percent of the vote, according to Wataniya television, quoting exit polls by Sigma Conseil.

The anti-establishment Saied is seen as uptight and unwavering, but beneath his austere style is a commitment to socially conservative views and to decentralizing Tunisia’s political system.

He has defended the death penalty, criminalization of homosexuality and a sexual assault law that punishes unmarried couples who engage in public displays of affection.

Born in Tunis on February 22, 1958, into a middle-class family, Saied is an expert on constitutional law who taught at the Tunis faculty of judicial and political sciences from 1999 to 2018.

He retired last year, and launched an unorthodox election campaign that saw him shun mass rallies and focus instead on door-to-door canvassing for votes.

The ‘professor’

Some of his supporters still address him as “professor” — even though he has few published works and never earned a PhD.

He has two daughters and a son. His wife, a judge, has remained behind the scenes through much of his campaign.

Saied has been nicknamed “Robocop” because of his rigid self-presentation and speech and posture and expressionless demeanor.

Tunisians gather to celebrate the victory of Kais Saied in the Tunisia’s presidential runoff on October 13, 2019, in the capital Tunis. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)

But several of his former students have praised Saied, saying that beneath his tough exterior is a devoted teacher.

“He could spend hours outside class time explaining a lesson or helping us understand why we’d received a certain grade on an exam,” one of his students tweeted.

He was “a serious teacher, sometimes theatrical, but always available and ready to listen,” said Nessim Ben Gharbia, a journalist who took a course with Saied from September 2011 to June 2012.

‘Not an Islamist’

Among his supporters are activists he met during the 2011 protests that raged following the ouster of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, demanding a complete overhaul of the political system.

Saied became a household name when he became a regular political commentator on TV during the drafting of the constitution adopted in 2014.

Among his policy pledges are a radical decentralization of power, along with the creation of a new network of elected local councils led by officials who would face the sack if they abuse their power.

In an online video, he is seen defending his vision as a roadmap to ensure “that the will of the people reaches all the way up through the highest ranks of the central government, and to put an end to corruption.”

The support he has built has been buoyed by a broad rejection among voters of the post-Arab Spring political establishment.

People queue outside a polling station during the second round of the presidential election, in Tunis, Tunisia, October 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

While Tunisia has succeeded in curbing jihadist attacks that rocked the key tourist sector in 2015, its economy remains hampered by austere International Monetary Fund-backed reforms.

In his own no-frills life, Saied appears to embody the anti-corruption message he seeks to spread: he lives in a middle-class neighborhood in Tunis and his office is housed in a run-down flat in the heart of the capital.

And while he makes no secret of his conservative views, he says he would respect the social freedoms enshrined in law in recent years that civil society groups have hailed as victories.

“We will not backpedal on the rights we have gained in terms of our freedoms, in terms of women’s rights,” Saied has said.

Yet he rejects a bid to overhaul Tunisia’s inheritance law — which remains based on Islamic law, meaning that women inherit half of their male siblings’ part.

But experts refute that he is an Islamist.

“He is indeed an ultra-conservative, but he is no Islamist. He does not make his personal convictions his priorities,” constitutional law expert and Saied’s former teacher Iyadh Ben Achour told French newspaper La Croix in a recent interview.

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