The first place finish of retired constitutional law professor Kais Saied in the first round of Tunisia’s presidential elections on September 15 came as a surprise to many pundits and Tunisia’s political class.
While Saied had been in second place according to several private polls before the election, the subsequent lack of media coverage of Saied’s campaign, Saied’s lack of a party backing or endorsements from major institutions, and his new arrival to electoral politics all appeared to play in role in political analysts dismissing his chances.
Campaign videos and photos shared on Facebook pages following or supporting Saied’s campaign appeared to show that young people in particular were drawn to Saied. While Saied received over 18 percent of the votes according to the High Independent Election Body (ISIE), he received 37 percent of the votes of people between the ages of 18 and 25 according to an exit poll conducted by the private group Sigma Conseil. Saied also received over 20 percent of the votes of people aged between 26 and 45 according to the same exit poll.
“Mr. Kais Saied embodies righteousness, honesty, integrity, modesty, morality, respectability, scrupulousness and loyalty to the people,” Nour Ben Belgacem, a third year undergraduate student in Tunis who voted for Saied in the first round, told Meshkal in an email.
“There is in these results a great maturity: a people who expresses themselves, who says no and who sanctions. By this vote the people sanctioned the current political class, the old regime, the Islamists and the sterile opposition. With one stone, four blows!” Ben Belgacem wrote.
The first and second place finishers, Saied and media mogul Nabil Karoui respectively, beat out several people who had been seen as frontrunners, including Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, the current Defense Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi who received the backing of many in the Nidaa Tounes party, and Abdelfattah Mourou, the deputy speaker of parliament and a founding member of the Ennahdha party.
Aziz Saoudi, another second year university student in Tunis, told Meshkal that he voted for Saied “because he came from nowhere, and because he is independent…he made reputation that he’s a straight guy.”
Saoudi thinks that the political system is deadlocked and that getting bills passed is tough, so he likes that Saied has proposed introducing referendums.
“Kais Saied was the one who was the most convincing to me because I felt he is an intellectual, his CV is something that brings pride to the country, a clean person, his hands are clear. He didn’t join the mafia that we saw proliferate from the revolution until now,” Douaa Khnissi, a 28-year old dentist who voted for Saied in Nabeul told Meshkal. “I know that he will not be able to make a big revolutionary change. However, it’s time to change everything, to topple the system…His revolution is a revolution of institutions, and it’s not like the previous revolution.”
Khnissi deplores what she sees as the deteriorating economic conditions and corruption. She told Meshkal she thinks Saied’s commitment to constitutional law will ensure he won’t allow corruption to escape legal consequences.
“He didn’t give food to people, or tell them: ‘Vote for me and I will give you money.’ He ran his campaign with ethics, modesty, and with very simple means, like any simple Tunisian citizen. He is not from the bourgeois. He wasn’t pretentious when talking to people. That’s why I was sure about him,” Khnissi said.
“He’s an independent, he’s an anti-system, and he criticized both sides,” Skander Tlili, a 23-year-old architecture student and musician from Kef who voted for Saied told Meshkal by phone. “Right and left are foreign concepts that you can’t impose on this country and this culture. We are what we are, we don’t really need to choose.”
For both Tlili and Ben Belgacem, Saied’s apparent conservatism on issues of civil liberties don’t bother them despite their own disagreements with his views.
“Why are some so offended? Neither our laws nor our jurisprudence contravene Sharia and that did not prevent us from being moderate,” wrote Ben Belgacem, who noted that the 2011 revolution had nothing to do with a debate over religion’s role in society and laws but rather “occurred mainly for economic and not cultural or religious considerations.”
“I would have dreamed of a president who carries my ideas but unfortunately I have to admit that my ideas are not those of the majority,” Ben Belgacem wrote to Meshkal, noting that promoting gender equality and fighting social prejudices will be better accomplished over a long term struggle in schools and through cultural mechanisms rather than through electoral politics.
Tlili, the student from Kef, says he normally belongs to the left side of the political spectrum and had planned initially to vote for someone from the left, but he decided to be practical in his vote instead.
“I had to be more realistic because leftists in Tunisia are really few… sometimes we need to vote with wisdom,” Tlili told Meshkal. “I’m the kind of person who wants to live and drink and enjoy my life but I live in a society and sometimes I can’t tell society what to do… [Saied] is just a little bit to the right, because we Tunisians are conservative.”
Conservative, Leftist, or Populist?
In an interview with Acharaa al-Mgharabi before the elections published on June 12, 2019, Saied indicated that he is against homosexuality, in favor of capital punishment, against funding for associations, and against equality in inheritance.
However, Saied has rejected the label of conservative.
“Americans, are they conservative because the death penalty persists? It is the choice of a nation. It’s not conservative. I think it’s necessary to go beyond these labels,” Saied told journalist Céline Lussato from the French newspaper L’Obs in an interview published on September 20, 2019. “A statesman must seek to preserve society. We don’t defend the death penalty because we hope for hanging or the guillotine for someone, but because there was a crime and there needs to be social peace in society.”
Asked by Acharaa al-Mgharibi about his meeting with a member of the Salafi political party Hizb Ettahrir, Saied countered in that interview that his meeting had no bearing on his positions. Saeid also pointed out that he meets his far leftist friend Ridha “Lenin” Mekki, but that he wasn’t being questioned about those encounters.
“I was very surprised by his conservative viewpoints because in class he always had, or seemed to have anyway, this very leftist narrative and focused on the separation of church and state, and the civil aspect of the state,” Yasmine Wardi Akrimi, who took Saied’s constitutional class in her first year of law school in 2013, told Meshkal. “So when I see him today talking with reference to sharia or refusing to vote [for] or agree to equality between men and women in inheritance, I am very surprised.”
“He’s a very special mix between Marxism and very conservative morals. How that is going to be put in to practice I don’t know,” Meriem Guetat, another former student of Saied’s who would later go on to teach law at the same department as Saied, told Meshkal.
Questioned about his political identity by Thameur Mekki, the editor-in-chief of Nawaat, Saied once again employed rhetoric he had used during the campaign that seems to elide simple political classification.
“They’re always looking for political identity: to whom does one belong, or who is behind you, and who is supporting you,” Saied told Mekki in a video interview posted on Nawaat’s YouTube channel on September 24, 2019. “In terms of identity, [for me] it boils down to Tunisian identity, and not in reference to a specific ideology. I went beyond political ideologies decades ago…what are the mechanisms that establish the will of the majority of citizens?”
This prompted Mekki to bring up populism in contrast to pluralism, to which Saied asked what populism means to Mekki.
One of the most cited scholarly texts on populism, with over 2000 citations according to Google Scholar, is an article by Cas Mudde entitled “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Published in 2004, the article defines populism as “as an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”
Mudde goes on to argue that “in an often implicitly Rousseauian fashion, populists argue that parties corrupt the link between leaders and supporters, create artificial divisions within the homogeneous people, and put their own interests above those of the people.”
“Law, according to Rousseau, is the expression of the volonté générale [general will],” Saied was quoted as saying in his September 20 interview with L’Obs.
Saied has criticized the political party system and suggested a decentralized alternative to the current parliamentary system that would allow directly elected local councils to send delegates to a national representative body. Saied has suggested this would be more democratic as it would also allow for citizens to recall their representatives.
Former Students Express Admiration
Meshkal spoke to several former students of Saied. All of them, including, those who disagree with his political views, expressed admiration for him as a teacher and his generosity to students. Many also commented on the strangeness of his strict style and formal speech using classical Arabic even in informal settings.
“The way he interacted with his students he was very humble,” Rahma Limem, who took Saied’s class in 2009, told Meshkal.
Limem said that Saied taught for nearly two decades and almost never missed a class. His attendance rate over the years was so high that his students became very worried when one time he didn’t show up. According to Limem, it turned out Saied had indeed only been absent because he had taken seriously ill.
“He’s very straightforward. He has integrity. He’s very consistent. He’s not corrupt. I think these are the four main criteria why people voted for him,” Limem said.
“Kais Saied is one of the few teachers [who] if he has one hundred students asking him questions, he would stop and answer one hundred questions,” Akrimi, who took Saied’s class in 2013, told Meshkal. “He had a very leftist, anti-system narrative. He was always laughing with us about the political environment, about what was happening. The feeling we had was that he was very revolutionary. He participated in a lot of movements and protests. He was very helpful when we were organizing demonstrations in university or outside university.”
While Saied is not generally considered to have stood up to the authoritarian regime led by former President General Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, one former student recounted a story told to her by a professor and a colleague of Saied. That colleague said Saied had helped her stand up to pressure to give preferential treatment to a student who happened to be the daughter of one of Ben Ali’s ministers.
Khouloud Gmati, who took Saied’s class in 2009, said she was told the story by the professor in question, which occurred in 2006 or 2007.
“The teacher was getting threats and threatened to be fired and Kais Saied stood up for her. She used to tell us this story because she was surprised because she didn’t know him. She was grateful. The day of the exam the daughter was not supposed to enter the classroom and [take] the exam [because she had too many absent days on her record],” Gmati told Meshkal. “And he said that the girl should not enter the classroom and that we should stop her and provide protection to our colleagues because this is not fair for the other students. They should be treated equally and if this student does not deserve to be in the classroom at the time of the exam, so she’s not going to be there.”
But the qualities of Saied that endeared him to his students haven’t necessarily made them want to vote for him.
“He’s kind, and humane, and someone who would engage with you as a student, as a junior professor. He’s very humble and open to talk and that is very trustworthy,” Guetat told Meshkal. “But then—to me—when he starts to preach this conservative morality, then I question whether I should trust this person.”
“It was really a shock for me to see what his [campaign] program was,” said Akrimi. “I was happy at first until I saw his positions on equality and state institutions.”
“90 percent of students love him and a respect him as a professor, and believe in him as an individual,” said Limem. But “there is this division when it comes to seeing him as a candidate for president…There are students who are for him for president, and those who are against him, especially his conservative stances and his lack of experience.”
Many in the younger generation, however, are looking pat Saied’s conservatism.
“I vote without reservation for Mr. Kais Said in the second round,” Ben Belgacem, the undergraduate student said.
For Tlili, the architecture student, Saied’s first found victory confirmed that voting strategically was the right choice.
“In the previous elections I followed my heart and voted for the left, and it was useless vote, like I was following an idea that couldn’t be real in this land,” said Tlili. “When I saw that [Saied] was winning I was really proud. My vote was very useful.”
Meshkal reached out to Saied for an interview through multiple channels. Saied’s press team responded in an email that they have received a high volume of interview requests and are working to reply to them as quickly as possible.
George Gale and Hanen Zrig contributed to this article.