Starkly different candidates vie for Tunisia's presidency

TUNIS (Reuters) - If he wins Sunday’s election, media mogul Nabil Karoui will only have to stroll up one of Tunisia’s most expensive streets to move from his own home into the presidential palace.

Tunisian presidential candidate Nabil Karoui greets his supporters from a car during an election campaign event ahead of Sunday's second-round runoff election in Bizerte, Tunisia October 11, 2019. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

For his opponent Kais Saied, the journey would be very different: through poor districts where the 2011 revolution flared and where the cafes are filled with unemployed young men.

The stark contrast between their neighborhoods - Karoui’s opulent Carthage and Saied’s earthier Mnihla - underscores the many other differences between the candidates in both their politics and temperament.

Supporters of Karoui, a self-assured businessman facing corruption charges, present Sunday’s run-off presidential vote as a choice between a professionally successful, secular champion of Tunisia’s poor and an inexperienced conservative backed by Islamists.

Backers of Saied, an awkward law professor who has barely campaigned in the race, see it as pitting a humble, principled representative of the 2011 revolution that brought democracy to the country against a glib, corrupt avatar of Tunisia’s unchanging moneyed elite.

Although the president has fewer powers than a prime minister the post is still Tunisia’s most senior directly elected official with wide political influence. The prime minister will be picked by the parliament that was elected last Sunday.

No polls have been published since before the election period, but Saied took 18.4% of votes in last month’s first round and Karoui 15.6%.

Both men have presented themselves as political outsiders riding a wave of public dissatisfaction with the years of economic stagnation that followed the 2011 revolution, a rising that inspired the “Arab spring”.

On Friday night, weeks after Karoui and Saied took the top two places in the first round vote, Tunisians will see them debate face-to-face for the first time.

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The reason they have not met on the hustings already is that Karoui was in detention since August awaiting a verdict in his trial for tax evasion and money laundering, accusations he denies.

With democracy watchdogs raising concerns about the credibility of Sunday’s election, a court released Karoui on Wednesday evening, allowing him to leave prison before a crowd of cheering supporters.


Karoui’s legal troubles have reinforced the perception among his critics that he is a self-serving opportunist, and among his supporters that he is the victim of political machinations by influential rivals.

He made his fortune through a communications company he set up with his brother during the reign of Tunisia’s autocratic former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who died in exile in Saudi Arabia last month.

Recently, his unlicensed Nessma TV station has broadcast constant footage advertising Karoui’s philanthropy in the poorest districts of Tunisia.

Yet Karoui makes no bones about his wealth, and his formula for improving the lives of the poor involves boosting business - something that goes down well with the rich.

In the cypress-lined streets around his home, boasting foreign embassies, government palaces and ancient Roman sites, and with the Mediterranean glittering in the background, few people backed Saied.

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“In the first round all the people here voted for Nabil Karoui and they will vote for him again on Sunday to keep their interests,” said Nabila Nabli, a local resident who works as governess to a French family.

Yet Karoui also has great support in some of Tunisia’s poorest areas. In the parliamentary elections last Sunday, his party came first in the deprived northwestern hills near the Algerian border.

When Reuters visited that area before the first round of the presidential election, many people felt utterly disconnected from politics or the elections, but many had heard of Karoui after watching Nessma TV and its broadcasts showing him helping the poor.


Saied has the support of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that came out on top in the parliamentary vote last week, as well as some secular, leftwing groups.

Saied has voiced some conservative social views against homosexuality and equal inheritance for men and women, but has mostly kept quiet on policy issues.

His professed focus is on installing a form of direct democracy, but he also wants to stop the influence of foreign money in Tunisia and see a bigger state role in the economy.

For many, his appeal lies in his personality. He spent no cash on his campaign, preferring to simply talk to people in cafes. His formal personal manner has bolstered his image as a man ready to root out corruption, cronyism and privilege.

In his Mnihla district on the outskirts of Tunis, he lives in a large house in a new, middle-class development closely surrounded by much poorer areas.

At the Barakette cafe opposite the mosque he attends, the barman said Saied’s habits matched his public image. “He is very correct and exact. He comes every day at exactly the same time, takes his coffee, gives the exact change,” he said.

In the fruit stand nearby, Adil Zidi, 29, took a moment from spooning out cactus fruit for a customer to say why he planned to vote for Saied.

“For us as frustrated youth, we’ll vote for any newcomer like him to get rid of the old system... he’s a correct, serious person who can apply the law without distinction,” he said.

Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Frances Kerry