A radical choice for equality in Tunisia

A law professor wins the presidency with his ideas – and actions – of equal opportunity for equality. Tunisia again inspires the Middle East on democracy’s fundamentals.

Tunisia's incoming president, Kais Saied.

Tunisia, the North African nation that ignited the 2011 Arab Spring, keeps sparking new lessons for Arab and Muslim countries in the basics of democracy. Last Sunday’s election of a new president was no exception. The surprise victor, law professor Kais Saied, won in large part because disenchanted young people were inspired by his radical concepts of equality, in both words and actions.

His campaign alone was an expression of equality. He paid for it out of his own money, even returning contributions. His headquarters was a small room on the upper floor of a building with no elevator. With few aids or advisers, he often met voters going door to door or in small gatherings. When his main opponent was temporarily jailed, Mr. Saied suspended his campaign. He did not like “the lack of equal opportunities between the two candidates.”

Likewise, his platform was based on the concept of providing equal opportunity for all to become equal. Rather than propose many programs, he told voters “you are the program.” He plans to shift power to elected local councils and make it easier to remove national leaders. He said the era of political parties is over and the “state” is only a “democracy of individuals.”

In his victory speech, he vowed to “work so that all the laws apply to all Tunisians, including myself.” It was his way of attacking a legacy of patriarchy, tribalism, and nepotism that still lingers in Tunisia despite a new Constitution and equality-promoting laws that, on paper, claim individual liberty. Without greater equality of opportunity in many aspects of Tunisian life, a dormant economy cannot begin to thrive.

To be sure, Mr. Saied has a weakness in his concept. He opposes, for example, women being given equal inheritance. One reason is that the Quran is quite specific on men receiving a larger share of family wealth. The other is that a majority of Tunisians, including women, still hold to this discrimination.

Despite this, Tunisia’s election of this icon of equality is again setting an example for much of the Middle East, where most leaders treat people more as subjects than citizens. Mr. Saied even used his victory to turn the burden of governance back on the people. “My advice to Tunisian young people is to use this great opportunity to ... put forward examples of honesty and righteousness.” He sees such gifts of character as equally given to everyone.

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