The World

Can the Last Surviving Democracy of the Arab Spring Hang On?

What Tunisia’s shocking election result means for the country, and its region.

Kais Saied holds the Tunisian flag in his hands.
Kaïs Saïed celebrates his victory in the Tunisian presidential election in Tunis on Sunday. Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images

Tunisia, the first-born and last surviving democracy that sprang from Arab Spring, has just elected a new president. According to official projections, approximately 75 percent of voters cast their ballot for the political neophyte Kaïs Saïed. His opponent Nabil Karoui, no less a newcomer, conceded defeat by early evening. The unprecedented magnitude of Saïed’s victory, as well as the unprecedented profiles of both candidates, speaks volumes on the hazy future of this fledgling democracy.

Last month, in the first round of their country’s presidential election, Tunisians confronted a field of 24 candidates representing a dizzying spectrum of parties, from the Parti Destourien Libre (Free Destourian Party), filled with remnants from the rule of ousted dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, to Ennahda, the Islamist party that, filling the political vacuum after Ben Ali’s overthrow in 2011, proceeded to fill a largely secular electorate with distrust and disgust. Somewhere in the middle stood the secularist Nidaa Tounes, the party created in 2012 by Béji Caïd Essebsi, who was swept into the presidency in 2014.

Essebsi’s statesmanlike stature—due more to his great age than a gray-tinted past marked by repeated collaborations with repressive rulers—failed to quell the rising discontent of a nation burdened with deep debt (22 billion euros) and high unemployment (15 percent overall, and nearly 35 percent for the 15–24 age demographic). Tellingly, nearly 30 percent of the youths now standing in unemployment lines can boast of university degrees. After Essebsi died in July and the government decided to hold early elections to replace him, this volatile mix of great expectations and a grim job market exploded, upending the political system.

In the first round of voting in September, Tunisians expressed their disenchantment by either staying home or sticking it to the political establishment, plumping for candidates who had cast themselves as anti-system and anti-politician. Hence the stunning abstention level—nearly half of the electorate did not vote—and the first- and second-place finishes of two political neophytes.

In one corner was Saïed, a professor of constitutional law whose stern regard and stoic reserve earned him the moniker “Robocop” among his admiring students. After the revolution, Saïed became a fixture on Tunisian television, dissecting the political debates over the writing of the nation’s new constitution. That he did so in classical rather than colloquial Arabic—equivalent a CNN commentator speaking in Shakespearean English—garbed Saïed in even greater gravitas. In a country awash in clientelism and corruption, Tunisians were taken by his austerity and integrity.

These qualities were in full display during Saïed’s campaign. Paying out of his own pocket, he returned campaign contributions; abjuring aides and advisers, he went door to door and spoke at small venues; refusing to offer a political program, he instead promised to dismantle the state and return power to localities. By rejecting la politique and promoting la mystique, Saïed turned himself into a popular hero. As the Tunisian researcher Déborah Perez observes, Saïed “went to the people not in order to propose a program, but instead to tell them that they are the program.”

While Saïed’s revolutionary ideals and personal incorruptibility lend him a passing resemblance to Robespierre, his stance on social and religious issues comforts conservatives and reactionaries. His opposition to the abolition of the death penalty and legalization of abortion and homosexuality, as well as his defense of an Islamic law that gives the lion’s share of an inheritance to male children, led Ennahda and other Islamic parties to support his candidacy. While Saïed insists upon the individual liberties enshrined by the new constitution, that same constitution gives pride of place to Islam, identifying it as the nation’s official religion and the Tunisian people as “Arab and Muslim.” Rather than clarifying these ambiguities, Saïed cultivates them.

In the other corner of the presidential match was Karoui, a flamboyant millionaire who had made his fortune as the founder of Nessma TV in 2007. Not unlike Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi—whose media conglomerate is a stakeholder in Nessma—Karoui quickly dominated Tunisia’s entertainment and news industries. In his meteoric rise from relative obscurity to national notoriety, Karoui revealed a shape-shifting talent for cutting advantageous deals with the succession of leaders ranging from the despised Ben Ali through the Islamist Rached Ghannouchi to the secularist Essebsi.

In 2012, Karoui broke with Ennahda when Nessma TV broadcast Persepolis, the film based on Iranian French author Marjane Satrapi’s moving anti-Islamist graphic novel. Attacked by religious traditionalists, threatened by Muslim extremists, and hauled into court, Karoui nevertheless stood firm—a stance that won him the admiration of mostly urban and educated Tunisians who identify themselves as modernists. At the same time, his repeated forays into the country’s most impoverished regions, distributing free food, fridges, and phones, made Karoui something of a folk hero. That the phones are tied into Nessma, whose cameras also faithfully followed Karoui during his charitable sorties, suggests that his acts of munificence were not entirely selfless.

In 2017, there was little surprise when the government opened an investigation into Karoui’s financial activities, which seemed to include tax evasion and money laundering. His sudden imprisonment on the eve of the presidential campaign was perhaps no more surprising, but its obvious political motivation was nevertheless shocking. The move backfired, however: Casting himself as a political martyr, Karoui proved an even more formidable contender.

In order to avoid the constitutional conundrum of a president-elect taking office behind bars, the government released Karoui last week, giving him just enough time for a lightning round of campaign stops, climaxing in an unprecedented televised debate between Karoui and Saïed. In a barbed exchange, Karoui accused Saïed of offering “Walt Disney” fantasies to Tunisia’s struggling youth, warning that there are “tigers”—namely, the Islamists—behind his opponent’s campaign. Swatting away the accusation, Saïed replied that the only forces behind him were Tunisia’s youth who, won over by his promise of decentralization, demanded a participative democracy. Whether Karoui would have made a better showing had he been freed much earlier to campaign is unclear. But it may well be, given the margin of Saïed’s victory, that not just young Tunisians were persuaded by his stance.

The choice between Karoui and Saïed, one observer sighed, was tantamount to a choice between the plague and cholera. Pestilential metaphors aside, a ballot pitting a social reactionary without a political program against a chameleonlike wheeler-dealer was not why many Tunisians took to the streets and claimed power eight years ago.

What will a Saïed presidency mean for Tunisia’s fledgling democracy? Though he is a constitutional professor, Saïed is an unknown quantity as a politician. Far from proving to be undemocratic, he might prove radically democratic. He ran on the promise of taking down the centralized state and replacing it with local institutions in order to make politics more participative. Yet urbanized and middle-class Tunisians worry about Saïed’s religious conservatism. And they are right to worry, since he doesn’t have a party apparatus behind him and will need to turn to Ennahda, which holds the largest number of seats in the national assembly, to pass legislation.

In his first public remarks on Sunday night, Saïed congratulated the Tunisian people. After declaring in English that “Today you gave a lesson to the world,” he reverted to Arabic and promised to do his best to “construct a new Tunisia, based on the constitution and rule of law.” By way of peroration, Saïed vowed to “work so that all the laws apply to all Tunisians, including myself.”

Should he succeed, that will not just give new life to the young Tunisian democracy, but also serve as a model for other much older ones.