‘Political phenomenon’ Kais Saied rides pro-Palestinian wave in a historically decisive election win

Analysts cautioned that Saied’s fierce statements about Israel and the Palestinians would not translate into a fundamental change in Tunisia’s diplomacy.
Saturday 19/10/2019
Capitalising on emotions. President-elect Kais Saied greets supporters in Tunis, October 13. (DPA)
Capitalising on emotions. President-elect Kais Saied greets supporters in Tunis, October 13. (DPA)

TUNIS - Retired law professor Kais Saied soared to victory in Tunisia’s presidential election, securing the largest margin in the popular vote of any freely elected Tunisian leader.

Saied’s popularity, analysts said, was bolstered by his fiery stance against Israel, which became a focal point of his anti-establishment campaign.

In a break with Tunisia’s pragmatic approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Saied said normalisation with the Jewish state should be considered “high treason.”

That attitude was a departure from Tunisia’s policy of moderate realism that allowed it to gain security and diplomatic assistance from the West and delivered a steady flow of tourists from Israel, many of whom were drawn by the annual pilgrimage to a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.

Saied, in a televised campaign debate against Nabil Karoui, declared that normalisation with Israel would not be on the table if he was elected. “The word normalisation is false. Normalisation is treason. Anyone who deals with the Zionist entity must stand trial for high treason,” Saied snapped.

“We are in a state of war with Israel,” he added.

Saied, with no party affiliation and a low-budget campaign, won 73% of the vote — about 3 million ballots — in the October 13 election, drawing on significant support from young voters.

That was 1 million votes more than Tunisia’s first freely elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, received in 2014. Caid Essebsi died in office July 25 at the age of 92.

Saied’s victory in the second round was also attributed to support from Islamists, those on the far left and disillusioned independents. Local analysts said Saied’s “moral values,” independent stance and culture brought disparate factions together.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who received 7% in the first round of presidential voting, called Saied’s election “a plebiscite against corruption.”

Riadh Sidaoui, director of the Arab Centre for Political and Social Research, said the “unusual” convergence between rivals, including Islamists, Arab nationalists and some modern secularists in favour of Saied was “an unprecedented social and political phenomenon in the Arab region and elsewhere in the world.”

“Ordinary Tunisians with no ideological and political affiliation voted for Saied, too. They said they find the man exactly like most of them. Sitting with friends at cafes like we do. Smoking cigarettes of a popular brand as we do and sharing the social life of high inflation and struggle with transport like most of us,”  Sidaoui argued.

Local analysts said Saied’s staunch embrace of the Palestinian cause also helped his case.

“The cause of Palestine was determining for him,” said Tunisian analyst Abdellatif Hanachi. “It fundamentally changed the game.”

Political writer Assia Atrous said: “He (Saied) forcefully expressed his feeling towards the Palestinians and their nationalist struggle. That made a difference for him against his rival.”

However, analysts cautioned that Saied’s fierce statements about Israel and the Palestinians would not translate into a fundamental change in Tunisia’s diplomacy.

Saied, with limited experience in foreign affairs, “has laid out principles more than a concrete road map for Tunisia’s diplomacy,” said former diplomat Taoufik Ouanes. “While sticking to fundamentals, he will make some adjustments to Tunisian diplomacy.”

Pro-Palestinian sentiment has long run high in Tunisia. After Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba hosted Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and more than 4,000 fighters expelled from Lebanon.

Embracing the Palestinians came at a high cost. In 1985, Israeli jets bombed Arafat’s office outside Tunis, killing dozens of Palestinians and Tunisians. Israel violated Tunisia’s territory again in 1988 when a Mossad squad assassinated Khalil al-Wazir, known by the nom de guerre Abu Jihad, at his home in

Sidi Bou Said.

Another suspected Mossad squad took advantage of Tunisia’s shaky security situation in 2016 to assassinate engineer Mohamed Zouari, who had links with Hamas’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, at his home in Sfax.

Despite the violations, most Tunisians do not harbour hatred for the Israeli state. No “Down with Israel” or “Down with America” slogans have been chanted by crowds in streets since 2011 when Tunisia began its democratic transition.

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