September 19, 2019 / 3:21 PM / a month ago

The ex-professor out to remake Tunisian politics

TUNIS (Reuters) - A retired law professor with an awkward public manner, little money, no political party and a commitment to an obscure form of democracy might soon become the most unlikely leader in the Arab world.

FILE PHOTO: Presidential candidate Kais Saied speaks to the media at his campaign headquarters, as the country awaits the official results of the presidential election, in Tunis, Tunisia September 17, 2019. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Kais Saied has won the support of both Islamists and leftists, though his radical but socially conservative politics do not neatly chime with either group. It has left both his critics and supporters scrambling to define him.

“I did not make traditional promises or a traditional program… but new ideas that can be realized.. today we entered a new stage in the history of Tunisia,” he told Reuters.

Tunisians gave him most votes in the first round of Sunday’s presidential election against an array of veteran political leaders, sending him through to a runoff.

It represented the sharpest rejection of Tunisia’s ruling elite since the 2011 uprising that ushered in democratic rule.

“He convinced us that change is possible and in our own hands,” said Bassam Naffati, a 22-year-old biology student who is volunteering for Saied’s campaign.

On the night of the election, the balding, 61-year-old Saied, speaking in his usual ultra-formal style of classical Arabic, described his apparent win as “like a new revolution”.

Though he did well in opinion polls for months, his lack of an established political or media base made him something of a dark horse and a less familiar figure to many Tunisians than his second-round opponent: detained media mogul Nabil Karoui.

Both are relative outsiders, but they are very different.

The wealthy, slickly presented Karoui, has a television station and a large election team. He is also in custody on suspicion of tax evasion and money laundering, which he denies.

Supporters of Saied, who spent so little on his campaign that Tunisians say it cost the price of a coffee and a packet of cigarettes, present him as a paragon of personal integrity.

AUSTERITY

His austere approach is plain in his campaign headquarters: a small upstairs apartment in an old downtown building with no elevator, broken windows and peeling paintwork equipped with little more than a small television and some plastic chairs.

“I knew him up close in 2011 after the revolution, during the first movement of youth against the old guard. He was one of the few who understood our demands. He listened to us,” said Sonia Chriti, 40, a former student of Saied.

A former law faculty colleague, Jawher Ben Mubarek, said that during those tumultuous days they would wander late into the night through the narrow streets of the Kasbah and the grand colonial boulevards of downtown, discussing politics.

“We would stop a lot and talk to the protesters about their demands,” he said.

In his office, the supporters gathered there included hijab-wearing conservatives, left-wing students, unemployed workers and university professors.

His conservative social views - favoring the death penalty and opposing homosexuality and equal inheritance for men and women - appear to have won him much support among Islamists.

However, Ben Mubarek, who has known Saied for many years, says he is neither an Islamist nor a fundamentalist. He has spoken against changing the constitution to base it on Islamic law and his wife, a judge, does not wear a headscarf.

He has urged a crackdown on foreign money in Tunisia, including on spending by non-government and civil society organizations, which he sees threatening Tunisian society.

The stripped-back campaign has no formal manager, but Saied’s closest adviser is Rida Mekki, a veteran leftwinger whose popular nickname is “Rida Lenin”. It was their collaboration over the past few years that pushed him from being an academic into politics, said Ben Mubarek.

‘EATEN BY A DONKEY’

Saied was in the committee of experts that helped parliament draft Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution, adopted in 2014, and was sometimes invited on to television as a commentator. He was first noticed publicly when, asked what stage the draft constitution was in, he said: “It has been eaten by a donkey”.

The remark underscored his contempt for party politics and a directly elected parliament, something he wants Tunisia to entirely abandon in favor of a “democracy of individuals”.

He wants Tunisians to elect small local councils based on the character of their representatives rather than party or ideology. They would in turn choose regional representatives who would choose national ones.

“Power must belong to people directly,” Saied said.

With politicians in Tunis dominating the post-revolutionary era, a period that included great economic disappointment, that sort of radical decentralization appeals to many of those who rose up across the country eight years ago.

“We demanded the dignity and development of the marginalized regions... his proposal was to strengthen decentralization in governance, and the voting system is the first step in giving more dignity and development to those regions,” said Chriti.

Saied appears to stand little chance of implementing this system. Changing the constitution needs a two-thirds majority in parliament, for which there is an election next month. He has no party and none of those running for parliament back his plan.

How “Robocop”, as some social media users dubbed him for the mechanical timbre of his voice, handles the frustrations of political life may determine what sort of president he would be.

Reporting By Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall

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