Tunisian president reaches out to poor but stirs controversy by not wearing protective mask

Saied’s outreach to Tunisia’s poor has not stopped unrest near his home in Mnihla, where protests were staged March 30 against lockdown measures.
Thursday 09/04/2020
 President Kais Saied (2nd-R) taking part in the distribution of aid packages amid the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, in Gammarth, on the outskirts of Tunis, April 5. (AFP)
Amid pandemic. President Kais Saied (2nd-R) taking part in the distribution of aid packages amid the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, in Gammarth, on the outskirts of Tunis, April 5. (AFP)

TUNIS--Tunisian President Kais Saied braved the risks of the coronavirus pandemic to help load aid packages destined for the poor. But while he may have bolstered his populist image at a time of national crisis, he also raised questions about his degree of commitment to health precautions by not wearing a protective mask.

Shown on television April 5 loading aid packages on to trucks, the president was not wearing a surgical mask for protection from the virus, though other volunteers around him and members of his personal security detail did wear masks.

Saied subsequently addressed Tunisians from the makeshift warehouse where aid packages are stocked and linked his gesture to the legacy of a 15-century caliph who famously handed out wheat to a needy woman during a plague.

Saied’s reference to the ancient Islamic ruler reaching out to the poor played into his populist strategy of framing politics as a battle between the virtuous, hard-working masses and the elite.

But his decision not to wear a mask at a time when health professionals are urging the public to be extra vigilant drew mixed reactions.

Some viewed it as a caring gesture from a leader more concerned with the plight of the poor than with the risks of the virus. But a number of intellectuals felt the move set a bad example during the health crisis.

A number of political activists, however, thought the criticism against Saied, whether for his ostentatious display of helping the poor or for flaunting health precautions, was fuelled by Islamists who have always suspected the president of challenging Ennahda’s attempt at controlling the political agenda.

“Saied is in the crossfire of the Deep State and of Ennahda’s Internet army,” said Issam Chebbi, Secretary-General of al-Hizb al-Jomhouri (Republican Party).

The next day, Saied appeared again in public without a mask, when he visited the shrine of late president Habib Bourguiba to mark the commemoration of his death 20 years ago. It was for him the occasion to pay tribute to the first Tunisian president and reconcile himself with the many admirers of Bourguiba who always felt that Saied has been unfair to their secularist idol’s legacy.

Saied, a retired university law teacher with no political party base, won last year’s presidential elections in a landslide, propelled by his image as an honest, fair leader with respect for law and order and the common citizen. Since taking office, Saied has continued to build on his reputation as a voice of the poor and marginalised.

Saied made true on his promise not to stay in the presidential palace, instead returning to his home on the outskirts of the working class district of Mnihla every day after work, though since the health crisis began he has been staying in the palace.

Saied also made a controversial gesture by welcoming Tunisian orphans — the children of jihadist fighters who died fighting abroad — into the presidential palace.

He has threatened to step down if he were ever forced to choose between siding with the masses and keeping his job.

But Saied’s outreach to Tunisia’s poor has not stopped unrest near his home in Mnihla, where protests were staged March 30 against national lockdown measures.

The protesters demanded the state either lift the lockdown or provide aid to the poor and workers who have lost revenue because of the measures, prompting the government to speed up financial aid to some 1.5 million in need.

The announcement of the aid scheme drew crowds of Tunisians to post offices to apply for financial relief, exacerbating concerns that the government’s relatively successful efforts to slow the virus’s spread could be reversed if Tunisians grow lax in respecting social distancing measures.

Saied’s critics argue his populist messaging is getting in the way of him leading an effective response to the crisis.

Olfa Youssef, a fierce critic of the president, said his decision to now stay in the presidential palace exposed the emptiness of his political vision.

“All of a sudden, he (the president) smelled the incense of the revolution of the poor and hungry and forgot about his eagerness to live in the midst of the people and remembered that he needs the walls of his palace for protection,” wrote Youssef.

“Does that means that it is the end of populism?” she asked. “Certainly not. Populism takes brainless aspects to influence a decreasing number of people until the dawning of the hour of salvation.”

Other critics argued it would be more useful for the president to visit doctors and nurses on the front lines fighting the disease, or laboratories and factories working on producing much-needed supplies, than helping distribute aid to the poor.

“You have to expect similar moves widely welcomed by the masses but denounced by the elites,” said political writer Assayed Anaoui. “There is no oddity in that.”