Kais Saied, Tunisia’s All-Powerful President

As early as 2013, Kais Saied was mapping his route, to put into practice his plans for a grass-roots democracy. He was convinced that it was his mission to modify the Tunisian political system by turning the pyramid of power upside down. He would do it without a party, without a detailed program and without significant allies, and would rely on the younger generation and his watchword, borrowed from the 2011 revolution: “The people want”.

Fathi Belaid/AFP

It was immediately after the revolution that Kais Saied, the man who trusts all the powers of the State in present-day Tunisia, acquired a taste for politics. He favours a complete overhaul of the system and its political practices, and in 2011 he joined an oppositional coalition formed to protest the establishment of two successive cabinets presided over by Mohamed Ghannouchi, a former Prime Minister under Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. With a number of friends who favoured a radical break with the politics of the past, Saied put together a group of people from very different political persuasions: Arab nationalists, a former far left activist (Watad), Radha El-Mekki known as Lenin, but also his own brother Naoufel Saied, deeply influenced by the ideas of Iranian theologian and revolutionary Ali Shariati (1933–1977) who placed oppressed peoples at the heart of his thinking and his reinterpretation of Islam and Shi’ism.

In 2013, Saied and his friends took part in rather confidential political meetings, attended by young people convinced they had been defrauded of their revolution. This little group believed in Saied. Like him, they hated political parties, did not believe in intermediary bodies, and were firmly convinced that their movement would overcome, that it was only a matter of time. This was the state of mind that led to the creation of the Mouassissoun movement (The Founders). Saied’s followers were young people bent on communicating their passion for a change in the country’s political life, a radical change. They travelled to many cities and out-of-the-way regions to spread the ideas of someone named Kais Saied. In addition to establishing this direct contact with the people, were aware that Tunisia numbers eight million Facebook subscribers, and so they created a page and busied themselves spreading their idol’s ideas on the Net, stressing the necessary centrality of the role of the people in every political decision.

The victory of independent politicians

Observing the political life of their country, these activists were convinced that its governance did not in any way correspond to the expectations of Tunisians. No matter which politicians and political parties were in charge of the successive governments, none ruled in the spirit of the revolution in terms of equality, dignity, or justice. And it became obvious that many Tunisians shared their analysis.

In 2018 were held the first local elections since the revolution. They were won overwhelmingly by independent lists headed by candidates from the civil society.

These outdistanced Ennahda, which lost half of its constituency compared with the 2014 parliamentary election, while Nadaa Tunes, Beji Caid Essebsi’s modernist party, lost two thirds. The political class had been dealt a severe blow by players from outside the inner circle. Kais Saied and the young people around him were not indifferent to the success of these independent politicians who, unstructured and with no shared ideology, seemed for a while to offer a possible solution to the problems of political management, giving the impression that a genuine tidal wave was capable of bringing about far-reaching changes from the bottom up.

Some independent mayors thought that the dynamics which had elected them could be turned into a political force capable of carrying them to the Assembly of the People’s Representatives (APR)—Tunisia’s parliament. Meetings were held in view of the 2019 legislative elections. But these focused more on the issue of prospective candidates than on the programs that would enable them to constitute a genuine front and carry real weight in the coming election. This was a further source of disappointment and yet their success did show that Tunisians were expecting another type of governance, with different players.

In search of a saviour

In July 2019, the death of Beji Caid Essebsi reversed the electoral calendar; now the presidential election had to be held prior to the parliamentary election and the country’s attention focused on the search for a “saviour”. The project of political change from the bottom-up could have extended the triumph of the independent politicians in the local elections. But it was abandoned all the more easily as the campaign was to be characterised by an unprecedented populism which was undeniably detrimental to the constitution of an alternative political force borne by independent locally elected officials.

The election was held in a context of generalised economic doldrums, social unrest in the poverty-stricken central regions and a reconfigured political landscape. The unemployment rate was nearly 16%, the national debt amounted to 90% of the GDP.

Financially, the country was trapped, it was increasingly dependent on international financial institutions, especially the IMF: it was probably going to have to float a fourth ten-year loan.

But the country’s morale was also very low. Tunisians no longer knew what democracy was supposed to be about when they had a hard time paying their bills and sending their children to school. Many jumped to the conclusion that the revolution and political openness were responsible for their ill-being. The political analysis capable of showing how bad governance was the cause of people’s many hardships had not been carried out. The hopes for a miracle worker with quick solutions, and the failure to consider the needs of an abandoned population, fuelled the emergence of various forms of populism. New political groupings sprung up, adding to the huge number of parties already in existence.

Radical positions became fashionable with the creation of a party to the right of Ennahda, Karama, whose stock-in-trade was denouncing the compromises made by the historic Islamist party with the modernisers, first with Nidaa Tunes, then with Tanya Tunes. There was also the birth of a party advocating nostalgia for the old regime, an unthinkable position eight years earlier. The Parti destourien libre was founded by Abir Moussi, former assistant general secretary of the Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique (RCD), Ben Ali’s party, In her view, the 2011 revolution was nothing but a plot hatched abroad and backed by Tunisian traitors. She is a woman who truly embodies counter-revolution. In another vein, which has been called social liberal, Nabil Karoui, media tycoon and staunch adversary of Islamism (or at least he was in 2019) came out strongly against deep poverty.

“The people want”

As for Kais Saied, he advocated a populism involving a clean break with the political class, the institutions, and the elites in general. He believed that the time was ripe to implement his political project, he needs only capitalise on his predecessors’ mistakes. What he had to say was becoming increasingly attractive to more and more young people, disappointed by a revolution which had failed to keep its promises. It was on this grass-root base, which grew wider every day, that Saied conducted a campaign that was unusual, to say the least. It was a low-cost campaign involving no big rallies, no equipment or funds from the government but was based on young people’s conviction that the changes they hoped for could only be brought about by their idol. With no program to defend, no party to promote, they had only a plain leaflet with a portrait of Kais Saied and his famous slogan: “The people want”. What they put forward was their candidate’s promise of change, with no precise timetable. But what kind of change? In Saied’s mind, the important thing was to change people’s awareness, as individuals. And the young people campaigning for him stressed what seemed to them most important about this man: his honesty, his probity, his integrity, and the consistency of his convictions since 2011. However vague his proposals, Saied had succeeded in establishing a bond of trust with his supporters who had come to believe there was nothing utopian about his promises. This mutual trust was facilitated by the fact that Saied had put his finger on the ways the transition had misfired. Indeed, his speeches all revolved around the need to fight corruption, to denounce the violation of constitutional laws and to place the people and especially the young at the centre of the country’s political life. He also emphasised the need to neutralise the political class and restore the power of the State, to be led by a president embodying the will of the people.

Although nobody believed in the chances of this unconventional candidate, he made it to the run-off. There he was pitted against Nabil Karoui who had campaigned from his prison cell, under suspicion of money-laundering and bribery. And now Kais Saied’s victory in the run-off seemed a foregone conclusion. For he received the backing of many personalities who had run against him in the first round, like social democrat Moncef Marzouki, Islamist Abdelfateh Mourou, a radical Islamist from the Karama party, Selfeddine Makhlouf, conservative Lofi Mouhi, and others from the left such as Mohamed Abbou of the Democratic current, not to mention the Arab nationalists. Aside from a few left-wing groups and the party nostalgic for the old regime, Kais Saied had the backing of them all, and even the sympathy in a first phase of Rached Ghannouchi and Ennahda. With all this support, on 13 October 2019, he won the Presidential election hands down with 72.71% of the vote, against 27.29% for his opponent, Nabil Karoui.

Uncomfortable in his role as head of state

Elected though he was by a huge majority, Kais Said soon realised he had very little freedom of action. Given his distrust of the traditional political players, he chose his advisors among his friends. His prerogatives were limited, he had to deal with a multicoloured, powerful parliament, presided over by Rached Ghannouchi. The latter had the feeling he had survived the worst and had the firm intention of making his mark, nationally and internationally. He did not bother with Kais Saied whom he did not seem to take seriously, encroaching on the President’s domain, flaunting a kind of parallel diplomacy. Already in October 2019, Ghannouchi had had a talk with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Istanbul. Another visit followed in January 2020 but the real reason for these trips remained unknown. Erdoğan even made an “unexpected” trip to Tunisia, at a time when Turkey had sided only with Fayez Saraj, head of the Tripoli government in Libya. The proximity of the Turkish chief of State with the speaker of the Tunisian Parliament was seen by Kais Saied as a provocation and humiliation.

This issue of the respective prerogatives of the three “heads” of the State (President, speaker of the Assembly and Prime Minister) ultimately led to a full-blown political crisis during the winter of 2021. Kais Saied made overtures to young people and to the leaders of social protest, encouraging their demands. He distanced himself from institutional activities and made a point of criticising Premier Hichem Mechichi, accusing him of being responsible for an increasingly difficult political situation. In January 2021, while social anger was brewing in different parts of the country, while young people defied the curfew decreed to fight the coronavirus, smashing store windows, and destroying shops and cars before they started looting, the head of State stood apart from Mechichi who treated the protestors as criminals.

Saied also appeared to be counting on the situation to deteriorate, refusing to swear in ministers appointed as part of a cabinet reshuffle, refusing to enact an organic law on the establishment of a Constitutional Court. Nor did he have anything to say about the chaos that reigned in the ARP which had prompted many Tunisians to demand its dissolution. The country’s political life was at a standstill, which was detrimental to the handling of the second wave of Covid-19.

The backing of the police and the army

On 25 July 2021, at a meeting in his Carthage palace, Kais Saied decided to suspend the activities of Parliament where Ennahda played a key role, to lift the immunity of MPs and dismiss Premier Hichem Mechichi. Thus, he marginalised the ARP and its speaker with whom he was on very bad terms and sacked a head of government with whom he was in open conflict. The exasperation of Tunisians, already suffering from the consequences of an economic and social crisis exacerbated by political inaction, explains the enthusiasm with which many of them greeted the President’s decision, yet at that point in time he seemed incapable of wresting his country from the nightmare of public powerlessness. At the same time other Tunisians were growing sceptical, wondering in the name of what “imminent peril” the chief of State had activated article 80 of the Constitution. Because that text stipulates that in those circumstances the speaker of the ARP and the chairman of the Constitutional Court must be consulted, which had not been the case and the Constitutional Court did not yet exist. Had that stickler for constitutionality overstepped the rules laid down by the Constitution?

More surprising still was the fact that Kais Saied had decreed a state of emergency relying on the backing of the police and the army. Now an executive backed by the police reminded people of the darkest hours of the old regime. As for the army, it has always been kept out of political decisions since Tunisian independence in 1956. Its involvement in political manoeuvres might give ideas to certain high-ranking officers. The fact remains that the army did indeed approve the President’s show of strength, notably by preventing the speaker of Parliament to enter the building on the evening of 26 July.

The political arena was in flux and despite the popular support for President Saied, Tunisia, cradle of the Arab revolutions, seemed to be sliding into authoritarianism. Two months later, all doubts were dispelled when Said Kaied took new exceptional decisions which reinforced his personal powers. Decree No. 17 stipulates that henceforth legislative acts will take the form of executive orders and be promulgated by the President of the Republic. The same text also stimulates that he wields executive powers with the aid of a council of ministers under a head of government, that the chief of State chairs the council but may delegate this function to the head of government. The President may also appoint and dismiss ministers, appoint diplomats and members of the senior public service. The cabinet is responsible only to him.

Thus the country witnessed an iron-handed presidentialisation of its political system, when its hybrid nature had been deliberately conceived in 2014 to prevent the confiscation of power by any single man, to the detriment of the people. Kaid Saied had gathered all the powers of the State in his hands, even while claiming that this decision was ultimately meant to “establish a democratic regime in which sovereignty will be placed in the hands of the people once and for all, to be exercised through their elected representatives or by way of referendum.” Saied has actually started to put this project into practice with the popular digital consultation inaugurated on January 1st 2022 and which is to continue until 20 March. In this way, he believes he can inject a larger dose of direct democracy into the Tunisian political system. The responses to such consultations are meant to serve as a basis for drawing up a new Constitution.

Kais Saied is now alone at the helm of his country. He has declared a state of emergency, a period during which the rules of law meant to protect people’s freedom and the operations of the State are placed on hold. The danger, of course, is that this state of emergency may become the normal modus operandi, what Pierre Hasner has dubbed “a permanent state of emergency”.

An elusive opposition

Sadri Khari has correctly written that Kais Saied is not an autonomous actor, but a product of circumstances, of the balance of power and of logics over which he has no control. Indeed, while he has capitalised on the mistakes made in the political transition, his project has also made its nest in the gaps left vacant by the parties. By dint of concessions and compromises, these have lost part of their identities.

Edifying in this respect is the evolution of Ennahda. It was a party built upon a “counter-society”, its religious referential conditioned its identity. When it adopted a strategy of alliance with the modernising parties, this appeared to be unnatural and caused it real harm. On the one hand, this rapprochement did not enable it to construct a common project in the interests of the transition, and on the other made it lose its mobilising capacity and deprived it of a large share of its grass-roots support. The high point of this mutation was reached at the 2016 congress when Rached Ghannouchi proclaimed “total reconciliation” in the presence of Beji Caid Essebsi. Ennahda was thus incorporated into an ill-defined political majority but consolidated its position on the political landscape.

In response to the 25 July coup, Rached Ghannouchi set himself up as the champion of parliamentary democracy but was unable to carry his opposition further than that. Because on the one hand, what had made the “Said phenomenon” possible was his party’s inability to propose solutions to the people’s demands. And on the other, the judicial authorities are in possession of concealed documents at the Ministry of Internal Affairs which reveal the existence of an unofficial intelligence service which might lead the attorneys investigating this affair to connect it with the political murders of Chakri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013.

Nor is Ennahda an isolated instance. When Saied first emerged in the political arena, all the political parties were up against the two-fold issue of their representativity and the relevance of their political identity. To which must be added the fact that in Tunisia, the civil society has pre-empted the issues which should have figured in the platforms of the political parties. For example, the Forum Tunisien des droits économiques et sociales (FTDES) publishes analyses on social issues, migration and regional inequalities. The solutions and alternatives recommended in its reports and other publications are not to be found in any party program. The legal structures so not allow for any gateway between associations and parties. In spite of this, a connection does exist between FTDES and the Union générale tunisienne du travail UGTT) for example, but this is never rendered in terms of political proposals or opposition. Which shows that the weakness of the opposition is also due to the difficulty involved in moving from associational activism to an organised political offer. While social and societal issues are indeed analysed by various civil society organisations, these are not bodied forth by politicians and therefore carry no weight in an electoral competition. As a woman active on the Tunisian left admitted: “In the Popular Front, we did have thoughts of direct democracy and an on-line consultation; Kais Saied has done the deed, embodying a counter-power and at the same time wielding the supreme power.”

An official of the Al-Qotb party told us: “On the left, we were taken by surprise and we left the playing-field open for populism. Today it is Saied who is using left-wing rhetoric, but for his own benefit.” As an example, he pointed to the young people’s uprising in January 2021, stressing the fact that during those nights of social rioting the streets were neither Islamist nor favourable to the old regime, the people were simply tired, exasperated and the young were demonstrating in their name. Kais Saied took their side, making Ennahda feel a bit more uncomfortable and guilt-tripping Premier Mechichi.

Actually, Saied did not need to worry about the left: it was clearly backing him in the 2019 election. Between the two ballots, except for Al-Qotb and the Workers’ Party, nearly all the left-wing parties came out in his favour, especially because he was running against Nabil Karoui, was anti-elite and anti-system and claimed to be acting with the people and for the people.

He was also a firm opponent of Ennahda. Nor did he need to worry about the PDL. He had outflanked Abir Moussi by sidelining Ennahda without allowing it a place in the opposition and holding a sword of Damocles over the heads of its cadres and leaders entangled in bribery cases. All these examples serve to show the extent to which the democratic platforms organised to combat Kais Saied’s monopolisation of the instruments of power as well as certain individual postures are exceedingly weak by comparison with a president who has the support of conservatives, ordinary Muslims, and all those who place their hopes in a strong presidency.