The many faces of Kais Saied
In an expression of disenchantment with Tunisia’s political class, voters eschewed traditional political figures in presidential elections September 15, choosing two outsiders to advance to a runoff in October.
Finishing first with 18.4% of the vote was enigmatic law professor Kais Saied. The second to move on in the presidential race was media mogul Nabil Karoui, who is behind bars on charges of money laundering, with 15.6%. No other candidate earned more than 12.9% of the vote.
Karoui’s win was no surprise. Last June, he founded a party called Qalb Tounes, which was joined by significant political figures, including former Nidaa Tounes officials such as Ridha Charfeddine.
After Karoui’s detention, his wife, Salwa Smaoui, and his Nessma television channel campaigned on his behalf, building on his image as a champion of the poor, rural communities seen as forgotten by the elite.
A campaign in the shadows
Saied’s campaign could not have been more different. No one, except those with access to opinion polls banned from publication since July, saw the man coming. Saied’s meteoric ascent raised questions about his campaign strategy, his network of supporters, his platform and his ambitions.
Saied has portrayed himself as an “independent,” anti-establishment candidate, disconnected from the political, media and cultural elite that the public has grown disillusioned with. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg.
A survey of Saied’s campaign appearances and internet support groups reveals four key factors that could shed light on his unlikely rise.
The first is his ability to remain composed under pressure and not reveal his emotions. This became clear during Saied’s first appearance on national television shortly after the 2011 uprising. Commenting on the challenges that Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly would face, Saied was ridiculed on social media for his unusual manner of speech and robotic-like posture. The criticism unphased him. In later appearances he remained remarkably calm, composed and capable of handling criticism with ease and class.
This was even more evident two years later when Saied was the victim of a television prank show. On Ettounsiya TV, the hosts attempted to simulate an earthquake while Saied was in the studio, artificially causing the walls and furniture to shake violently and creating a general atmosphere of panic. Saied, however, acted as though he knew the event was staged and did not bat an eyelid. “Are you finished?” he quipped to one of the hosts midway through the ordeal.
Saied’s second key attribute is his ability to capitalise on dramatic political developments to advance his agenda. A prime example is Saied’s reaction to the assassinations of prominent leftist leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013, seen as watershed moments in Tunisia’s democracy.
While people were gathered for Brahmi’s funeral, Saied used the opportunity to spell out his political vision. He hoped to see “a new temporary regulation of public authorities ahead of new elections governed by new laws different from those adopted in 2011,” he said, arguing that the old laws were to blame for the dark political climate.
Saied also spoke of the need for people to rally around “a new leadership from outside the establishment” and advocated for a radical decentralisation of power with local democratic forces.
Sound familiar? Those are the same reforms Saied is campaigning on in 2019. They are not new ideas that he recently arrived upon after consulting with youth, as he has claimed, but old ideas that have been thrust back into the mainstream.
It is clear Saied’s electoral campaign did not start in 2019, as many believe, but began more than six years ago with the help of the unsuspecting traditional media outlets that broadcast his messages and disseminated his ideas before being attacked by his so-called anti-system supporters today.
Saied used the establishment, including the electoral regulations of 2011 and the traditional media he is currently avoiding, to target the establishment itself and try to change it from the inside.
A third factor in Saied’s rise is his ability to play on emotions, even if he doesn’t display them. Saied repeatedly speaks to Tunisians’ hearts but never their minds. He rails against the West, depicting its powers as occupiers and oppressors, and speaks against normalisation with Israel to sell the hope of liberating the Palestinians.
How would that be possible? How can Tunisia, with its modest army and socio-economic problems, effect change in the Palestinian territories? That is not important if we’re speaking to hearts.
Saied also uses tactics of fearmongering and exclusion to rally support. While everyone agrees with his claim that “Tunisia is heading towards a critical juncture,” his contention that the political class is attempting to “transform their bickering and fights into a national conflict” and trigger “internal turmoil” is hardly logical.
Tunisia, for all its troubles, organised free elections in 2011 and 2014 followed by peaceful transitions of power and calls by elites from across the spectrum for unity and cohesion. Saied wants the very people who have safeguarded the country’s democratic process to be excluded entirely from the political scene.
The last factor to be examined in Saied’s unusual rise is his two-pronged approach to outreach: He has used a massive social media following, especially on Facebook, while carrying out an old-time door-to-door campaign to directly reach voters.
On social media, Saied’s supporters created hundreds of pages, including open and private Facebook groups, to advance his cause. The most prominent of these are: “Against the Machine,” “The Supporters of Kais Saied” and the “Tunisian Youth Movement.” In one day before the first round of presidential elections, these social media cells doubled their activity and called on their followers to spread Saied’s message across the internet.
Since its creation in April the National Tunisian Youth Movement political party, with a Facebook page that has nearly 300,000 followers, has been an especially important tool. Headed by Thameur Badida, a shadowy US-based Tunisian who says he was stripped of his nationality because of his work as an opposition activist, the movement has been unequivocal in its support for Saied and has mobilised its members to vote in 2019 parliamentary elections for lists that the party is participating with and sympathetic figures that could help Saied push through legislation.
Since the election, pro-Saied groups and pages have been even more active, calling on users to create new accounts or hand over old accounts and pages to increase online activity and flood the web with posts supportive of their candidate.
Saied’s influence on social media was exemplified by popular backlash against media channel Elhiwar Ettounsi. The Tunisian TV channel’s Facebook page lost more than 1 million followers in 24 hours after one of its journalists criticised Saied’s electoral programme.
A door-to-door approach helped Saied kill two birds with one stone: First, he saved money by not purchasing advertising or extravagant campaign posters that are often criticised by the Tunisian electorate as a waste of resources. At the same time, he gave himself space to speak with people privately and tell them exactly what they wanted to hear, depending on their political affiliation, social class and region.
Without being reported on extensively in the media, Saied, with his contradictory and inconsistent discourse, managed to reassure everyone -- left, right, young, old, educated and uneducated -- that he would work for their interests.
Who is Kais Saied?
Saied's views are clearly inconsistent. He claims to be in favour of ensuring women’s rights but against gender equality. He said he respects the law and the constitution but wants to amend, if not completely overhaul, both. He wants to ramp up the fight against extremists, yet he’s against designating extremist groups like Ansar Sharia as terrorist organisations.
The question remains: Who is Kais Saied? Is he simply a smart strategist with nuanced positions, or a populist who combines the most dangerous elements of both the right and the left?
Looking at the candidate’s platform in depth, it is clear that many of his ideas on governance, focused on decentralisation, horizontality, popular assemblies, social economy and direct democracy, are far-left in nature. At the same time, Saied promotes a brand of rigid social conservatism that is far to the right.
It is this paradox -- perhaps a uniquely Tunisian one -- that has created a new political current.
Saied is neither an Islamist nor an anarchist. He’s neither a liberal nor a socialist. For now, he simply cannot be defined.
However, to depict the man as a revolutionary leader is equally misguided. During all the long years he spent in academia, Saied never levelled even the mildest criticism against the now ousted regime of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
The real surprise is not that Kais Saied succeeded in Tunisia’s presidential elections -- we’ve gone through many of the factors that explain why.
The real surprise will be who Kais Saied shows himself to be if he becomes president. How will his utopian theories look when confronted with Tunisia’s practical realities and challenges? Will he garner enough support in parliament to effect real change? Will the man, who seemingly fought the establishment to eventually become part of it, succeed in knocking down the system?
Or will the new outsider candidate prove to be only the next chapter of disappointment for Tunisia’s youth?