Professor vs. media mogul: Populism plays in Tunisia, too

Why We Wrote This

Why should Tunisia’s democracy be exempt? In the presidential runoff, the issues are political reform and battling corrupt elites. It’s anti-establishment populism, without the xenophobia.

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
Supporters of Tunisian media mogul and presidential candidate Nabil Karoui celebrate after he was freed from jail, days before Sunday's second-round runoff election in Tunis, Tunisia, Oct. 9, 2019.

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In the eight years since their peaceful revolution ousted a dictator, Tunisians have turned to parties across the political spectrum. Yet a succession of governments has failed to tackle the issues that sparked the revolution: Unemployment is high, and inflation is rising.

So as Tunisians head to the polls Sunday for a presidential runoff election, the Arab world’s lone democracy joins the global trend of anti-establishment populism. The two survivors from an initial field of 26 candidates are outsiders.

One, the dark horse candidate and leader from the first round, is a constitutional law professor who had to borrow $3,000 to register as a candidate and is promising Tunisians radical political change: a bottom-up, direct democracy. The other is a media mogul who has promised to shake up the system and harvested popular anger toward “corrupt elites” despite comparisons to Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi.

“Tunisians are looking for people seen as not part of the system and who are promising new ideas, because it hasn’t worked out with those that went before them,” says Youssef Cherif, an analyst. “Populism is in our national mood.”

One is a constitutional law professor who had to borrow money to register as a candidate and is promising Tunisians radical political change: a bottom-up, direct democracy.

The other is a media mogul who has harvested popular anger toward “corrupt elites” and promised to shake up the system despite comparisons to Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi.

These are Tunisians’ choices for president on Sunday as the Arab world’s lone democracy joins the global trend of anti-establishment populism.

But unlike the identity politics or xenophobia emerging in American and European political discourse, these anti-politicians are pitching something uniquely Tunisian: a populism rooted in battling poverty, tackling corruption, and empowering local governments.

In the eight years since its peaceful revolution that ousted dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians have turned to parties across the political spectrum – the Islamist Ennahda party, technocrats, the liberal secular Nidaa Tounes, and coalitions.

Yet a succession of governments failed to tackle the issues that sparked the revolution: Unemployment still hovers at 15%, inflation has risen, and the Tunisian dinar has lost 25% of its value over the past four years.

Tunisians showed their disdain for parties at the ballot box in September’s first round of presidential elections, choosing two outsider candidates out of a field of 26.

“Tunisians are looking for people seen as not part of the system and who are promising new ideas, because it hasn’t worked out with those that went before them,” says Youssef Cherif, an analyst and head of Columbia Global Centers-Tunis.

“Populism is in our national mood.”

Law professor

This Tunisian shift to populism is perhaps best symbolized by Kais Saied, the dark horse presidential candidate who came out on top in the first round of polling and is widely tipped to become the country’s next president.

A constitutional law professor with no political affiliation and a disdain for party politics, Mr. Saied had a limited national profile in Tunisia; he was barely known outside his cult following of former students, leftists, and young revolutionaries drawn to his radical constitutional proposals.

As the campaign wore on, the legend of Mr. Saied grew large.

While other politicians spent millions on highway billboards, television ads, and flashy campaign concerts, Mr. Saied borrowed money from friends and supporters to pay the $3,000 candidate registration fee.

Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP
Supporters of independent law professor Kais Saied, a finalist in Tunisia's presidential election runoff, follow the results of the first round as it was announced on TV in Tunis, Tunisia, Sept.17, 2019.

His all-volunteer campaign relied on word-of-mouth and Facebook to let local residents know that Mr. Saied, who drove his own weathered Volkswagen to events, was stopping by their town.

His crowd pleaser is his lifelong project: a bottom-up, direct democracy that would redivert much of the legislative powers to the local level. Or, as he says on the campaign trail, “bring power back to the people.”

The novel proposal would be based on directly elected local councils at the village or town level, which would in turn select regional councils and members of parliament.

Under the system, citizens would have the right to recall officials instantly should they abuse their office or mismanage funds. Officials would be selected on their merits, rather than political affiliation.

This resonated in a country where for decades resources had been funneled to coastal cities and the capital. And it converted many young Tunisians in outside provinces into true believers.

Tunisians such as Hassan Ben Mohammed.

Hailing from a village on the outskirts of Tataouine, 400 miles south of Tunis and near the Libyan border, he says that despite the provinces holding much of Tunisia’s mineral wealth, local residents saw little in return.

“Instead of us deciding on what our priorities were as a community for services, the elites in Tunis decide for us,” Mr. Ben Mohammed says while manning the entrance to Mr. Saied’s office in a nondescript building in downtown Tunis.

Mr. Ben Mohammed, who first heard Mr. Saied speak at a 2011 Tunis sit-in, left his wife and two children at their home in Tataouine to serve as one of Mr. Saied’s first unpaid volunteers in May, working as a bodyguard and head of security.

“Kais Saied is not just providing solutions, he is empowering us to make our own solutions,” Mr. Ben Mohammed says.

Mr. Saied also appeals to Tunisians’ more conservative inclinations, calling to reinstate the death penalty, warning of “foreign influences” corrupting Tunisia’s “traditional values,” and denouncing foreign funding for LGBTQ rights in Tunisia.

Observers say this has allowed him to appeal across ideological divides to leftists, urban secularists, Islamists, and even ultraorthodox Salafists.

“There is a prophetic aura because he is such an unknown quantity. Voters see themselves represented in whatever he thinks or says,” says Mr. Cherif, the analyst. 

The millionaire

Americans and Europeans, meanwhile, may see a more familiar story in the rise of Nabil Karoui, a multimillionaire businessman and media mogul who used his TV personality and household name to launch an outsider campaign.

Despite being a member of Tunisia’s elite circles and having co-founded the ruling party, Nidaa Tounes, Mr. Karoui spun a new narrative for himself on his TV network: an outsider, nonpolitician, and foe of the elites who was going to shake things up.

To highlight his common touch, he had his own secret weapon: charity.

For the past two years, Mr. Karoui has crisscrossed the country delivering furniture and food packages of pasta and canned tomatoes to impoverished families through Khalil Tounes, a charity he founded in memory of his son Khalil, who died in a car accident.

Interrupting its usual fare of popular Turkish soap operas, Mr. Karoui’s network would air clips of him visiting rural families and embracing older women who would kiss him on the forehead in gratitude.

In contrast to Mr. Saied’s bottom-up democracy, Mr. Karoui pledges to expand the powers of the presidency in Tunisia – blaming the parliamentary system for paralyzing the country.

That he was detained by authorities in August for alleged corruption and released just this Wednesday has only solidified his outsider status.

At a campaign rally in a working-class neighborhood in the capital last week, followers carried signs reading “Free Nabil” as Mr. Karoui’s wife, Salma Samawi, made her way through the winding Sidi Abdel Salem market, passing out flyers to vendors selling used electronics, shoes, and dinged aluminum pots and pans.

An old woman came up to Ms. Samawi and said, “May God bless Nabil,” hugging her. Another man posed for a photograph holding the candidate’s photo, shouting, “Lock up the corrupt!”

Oussama Khlifi, Mr. Karoui’s political adviser and right-hand man, had a simple answer to Mr. Karoui’s meteoric rise and Tunisians’ sudden pull toward anti-elitism.

“The people’s slogan during the revolution was ‘work, dignity, freedom’ – and after eight years the political class has failed to deliver on any of those,” says Mr. Khlifi, who was also running for parliament.

“What Nabil is offering isn’t populism; he is focusing on poverty, social development, marginalization, and infrastructure,” Mr. Khlifi says. “We are not out here talking about ideologies; we are talking about actions. That is why the people support us.”

But the man termed by some as “Tunisia’s Berlusconi” or “Tunisia’s Trump” evokes strong reactions from detractors as well. Mr. Karoui was a business partner of Mr. Berlusconi, had ties to ex-dictator Mr. Ben Ali, and allegedly paid $1 million for a Canadian lobbyist to open channels with the Trump administration and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“He is just the latest in the long line of liars trying to take advantage of people’s economic worries and political ignorance,” says Abdelkarim Ben Garma, a shop owner in the Sidi Abdel Salem market, as the Karoui campaign paraded by.

“He is a friend of Berlusconi and is a friend of Trump,” he says, ripping up a leaflet with the candidate’s face and tossing it into the air. “What do you expect from a guy like him?”

Tunisia’s outsider trend is not stopping at the presidency.

In parliamentary elections this week, more than one-fourth of Tunisians voted for populist and independent lists, who grabbed 27% of the seats in parliament. Mr. Karoui’s list finished second with 17% of the vote.

“Some would say this is populism,” says Mohammed Ben Amo, a father of three and Saied supporter. “I would say: This is democracy.”

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