Populist Hero or Demagogue: Who Is Tunisia’s President?

TUNIS — Yr just after yr, the man now accused of trashing Tunisia’s Constitution sat straight-backed in a fit and tie at the entrance of a college lecture hall, his notes on constitutional law tidy in entrance of him, his Day 1 warning to college students making sure pin-drop silence:

Late pupils will not be admitted. Communicate to your neighbor for the duration of course, and you will be admonished. Do it all over again, and you will be asked to depart.

“I was taken aback at first,” recalled Fadoua El Ouni, who took Kais Saied’s constitutional legislation system her to start with calendar year at Carthage College. “Like, are all college classes likely to be like this?”

They had been not. Mr. Saied was semilegendary on campus for mesmerizing classrooms with his deep, ringing voice, his speech so starched and archaic that when Ms. El Ouni to start with read him converse in day to day Tunisian dialect, it was, she stated, an “out-of-physique working experience.”

Considering the fact that Mr. Saied suspended Parliament and fired his personal key minister past month amid mass protests around unchecked poverty, corruption and the coronavirus, Tunisians have puzzled over the contradictions:

How a political novice whose serious bearing and official design earned him the nickname “RoboCop” became so beloved among the youthful that Fb admirer pages sprang up crediting him with sage utterances he had in no way uttered.

How a law professor who preached stringent adherence to the Structure and practiced these own rigor that he pretty much never ever missed a working day of perform stretched the regulation to justify seizing electric power.

Most of all, they have argued in excess of regardless of whether his power grab tends to make him a populist hero or a harmful demagogue, no matter whether he will conserve the last standing democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring or ruin it.

People who know him see evidence of each: an uncompromising ideologue unwilling to hear to other people, yet one who lives modestly, reveals compassion for the poor and insists that his target is only to wrench electricity from corrupt elites.

“His supporters see in him the final, best hope to accomplish the targets of the revolution that had been in no way understood,” said Monica Marks, a Middle East politics professor at New York College Abu Dhabi. “But we know clean up people today who genuinely want to obtain superior aims can sometimes convert into individuals who chop off heads.”

By all accounts, Mr. Saied, a longtime legislation professor, is not the variety to purchase up a pet tiger or serve guests frozen yogurt flown in from St. Tropez, as did the family members of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s previous dictator. His particular routines run additional towards coffee outlets with plastic chairs and the middle-course neighborhood in which he has lived with his wife and 3 small children, even after his election to the presidency in 2019.

It is not individual ambition that drives him, he has mentioned, but a perception of responsibility and religious responsibility to return electrical power to the youth and the weak who ignited Tunisia’s 2011 revolution. In obedience to their will, he has reported, he aims to guarantee education, health care and decent life and to purge Tunisia of corruption.

“I am operating from my have will,” Mr. Saied explained to an interviewer in the course of his presidential campaign. “God states, ‘Warfare is obligatory for you, though it is hateful to you.’ Obligation is a hateful matter. It is like a soldier standing on the front. He does not want to destroy, but has been ordained to struggle.”

Mr. Saied’s business did not reply to a request for an job interview.

A devout Muslim, Mr. Saied has explained his presidency as “ibtilaa,” an Arabic word meaning a check assigned by God that are not able to be refused.

“He’s declaring he’s carrying out it due to the fact he has to do it, because individuals want him to do it,” stated Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a Syracuse University-dependent Tunisian political researcher. “The thought in Islam is that all people goes as a result of some sort of ibtilaa. In his case, it’s being the president.”

All of which may well seem like grandiloquent deal with for demagogy. But even his critics say his convictions are honest, rooted in faith and legitimate issue for the weak.

Mr. Saied, who was born to a household of mixed class in Tunis — his mother experienced aristocratic connections, his father’s background was modest — entered the countrywide stage in 2011, soon after the to start with innovative protests had died down and Mr. Ben Ali had fled the place.

When protesters from marginalized locations mounted mass sit-ins in Tunis to demand from customers much more sweeping modifications, Mr. Saied was 1 of the few establishment figures to show up in solidarity. Films of his visits were before long all above Fb.

As a new Structure was drafted, Mr. Saied, although serving on an advisory committee, was not granted a person of the pens.

The exclusion evidently grated. Tunisian television generally highlighted his commentary, which was dependable: The new Constitution about-favored Parliament. Voters would be caught deciding on between electoral lists promoted by political get-togethers who cared only about electrical power. Tunisians would feel extra invested in their democracy if they elected associates they realized personally.

His prescription was a floor-up, top-down political system, in which electric power would movement up from hundreds of right elected area councils and down from a solid president.

If the strategy appeared divorced from fact, he was unmoved. A person activist who obtained to know the professor during the democratic transition recalled that though he was modest and generous, arguing with him was worthless. (Most individuals interviewed asked for anonymity to communicate about the president, supplied the hugely billed political weather.)

For numerous Tunisians, even so, he was should-enjoy Tv. It was like “he was dictating the absolute reality about what the Constitution need to be,” claimed Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Center East and North Africa. “Like a prophet’s voice. Anything that goes further than human.”

Enamored of his austere authority, a excellent that grew only more desirable as corruption scandals dominated the information and the financial state worsened, Tunisians soon established up Fb web pages urging him to run for president.

Right until 2019, he refused.

The tale of his run is by now famed in Tunisia: The slogan “the men and women want,” echoing the chants of the 2011 revolution the marketing campaign volunteers who confirmed up without having his even inquiring the marketing campaign funding minimal, he insisted, to what he had in his wallet the aura of incorruptibility, in spite of scattered stories of overseas funding the lopsided runoff victory.

“Sovereignty belongs to the men and women,” he told an interviewer at the time. “Everything need to start out from them.”

He later on stated that he altered his mind about the presidency soon after a very poor guy approached him in tears, imploring him to operate — a minute he compared to a spiritual eyesight.

It would not be the previous this kind of conversation. Videos regularly flow into on the net of Mr. Saied embracing impoverished protesters at the presidential palace or halting to greet ordinary Tunisians in the street.

“That’s what men and women really do not locate in other politicians,” claimed Imen Neffati, a Tunisia researcher at Oxford University. “He stands out, since the majority of them really don’t seriously treatment.”

Critics dismissed him as just a regulation professor who, they have been fast to place out, in no way concluded his Ph.D. Other individuals decried his social sights: He supports the dying penalty, opposes equivalent inheritance for guys and girls and has criticized open homosexuality. These who “seek to unfold homosexuality,” he has mentioned, are aspect of a foreign plot.

A single attribute all concur on is his firmness. A European ambassador and informal adviser reported he insists he will by no means negotiate with corrupt politicians or get-togethers which, for him, rules out the celebration that dominates Parliament, Ennahda, as very well as most of Tunisia’s company and political elite.

Diplomats say each and every meeting at the presidential palace is a lecture, not a dialogue. Advisers say he listens to few, among the them his wife.

Due to the fact July 25, Mr. Saied’s stability forces have put dozens of judges, politicians and businessmen under vacation bans and other people underneath property arrest with no thanks course of action, increasing problem, even amongst supporters, that he is veering toward autocracy.

On Tuesday, his place of work introduced that the 30-working day interval he had at first set for his “exceptional measures” would be prolonged — for how very long, it did not say.

He is greatly predicted to try to transform Tunisia’s electoral program and amend its Constitution to enlarge presidential powers. Nevertheless he had promised to appoint a new primary minister by Tuesday, Tarek Kahlaoui, a Tunisian political analyst, said he had been advised by presidential advisers that Mr. Saied envisioned the place as far more of a “manager” than a true head of authorities.

In justifying his ability grab, Mr. Saied cited Report 80 of the Structure, which grants the president wide unexpected emergency powers in case of imminent risk to the country. But constitutional experts said his move violated the provision, in component since it involves Parliament to continue to be in session.

For all his legal precision, several men and women who know him stated, Mr. Saied typically operates on emotion and intuition.

“He feels that he’s been picked out by the people today,” Mr. Kahlaoui said. “People went into the streets, and it was time for him to act.”

So he did.

Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo.