Hall of Infamy: Kais Saied

An autocrat in institutional clothing, the Tunisian president has crushed the hopes of democrats in the birthplace of the Arab Spring. He’s the latest entrant in New Internationalist’s Hall of Infamy.

A portrait of Tunisian president Kais Saied. KHALED NASRAOUI/DPA/ALAMY

A portrait of Tunisian president Kais Saied. KHALED NASRAOUI/DPA/ALAMY

When Kais Saied, a former law professor and political outsider, was elected president of Tunisia back in October of 2019, he was the hope of the region’s young democrats. After all, it was here that the first stirrings of revolt sparked the process that shook dictatorships from Syria to Morocco in what became known as the Arab Spring in the early 2010s.

But alas, when Saied appeared in a jolly photo-op standing alongside Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi during the Arab Summit this May, it clearly signalled Tunisia’s return to the autocratic habits of the rest of the region’s current political class – though the signs have been there for a long time for those who cared to look.

On the campaign trail in 2019, Saied presented himself as a law-and-order conservative who would be tough on corruption and lift the country out of economic crisis, a sales pitch bought by Tunisia’s youth who made up a large swathe of his supporters. The retired constitutional law professor, who had never held a position in public office, was viewed by the young as a ‘clean and honest’ candidate.

When push came to shove, Saied wrapped himself in populist clothing promising to ‘save the nation’ from a plethora of enemies, ranging from refugees and homosexuals to liberals and corrupt elites. It is, of course, a recipe for repression and that is exactly what Saied is dishing out.

In July 2021, in response to mass demonstrations against police brutality, Kais Saied froze Parliament and dissolved Tunisia’s government. His ‘self-coup’ was celebrated on the streets by some citizens happy to see the back of a government they viewed as corrupt. But that stamp of approval quickly wore off when it became apparent that Saied was merely replacing the government with an authoritarian regime. After sacking the prime minister he declared himself attorney general so he could personally oversee the repression.

Since February this year opposition figures, including the country’s main opposition leader, the 81-year-old Rached Ghannouchi of the moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, have faced an unprecedented wave of arrests. Charged with ‘insulting state security’, Saied’s octogenarian foe could face the death penalty if found guilty.

Having once provided expert legal advice to help draft Tunisia’s 2014 constitution, the former stickler for the rules has ended up stretching and manipulating the law to justify his own seizure of absolute power. Promises to improve the lot of ordinary Tunisians have also failed to materialize, but it’s not those in power who are to blame, according to Saied. That would, of course, fall on the shoulders of Black African migrants, who he recently accused of bringing ‘violence, crime and unacceptable practices’ to Tunisia. The incendiary speech triggered a flood of racist attacks against Black Tunisians.

Prone to lecturing the nation using classical Arabic (a rigid form of the language rarely spoken in day-to-day life) rather than the commonly used Tunisian dialect, it seems Saied’s supporters have quickly grown tired of the professor-turned-president and his peculiar formalities. In January, just one in ten Tunisians voted in the country’s parliamentary run-offs – a record low turnout.

POSITION: President of Tunisia.

REPUTATION: Autocrat in constitutional clothing.

LOW CUNNING: Kais Saied presents himself as a simple man of the people called reluctantly to presidential service, and can often be seen in social media videos hugging poor Tunisians. Yet homeless migrants, refugees, Black Africans and anyone who defies him have no place in his Tunisia.

SENSE OF HUMOUR: The dour Saied is not exactly a laugh a minute. When lecturing in his university days, it was said you could hear a pin drop and god help the student who interrupted the good professor by arriving late. ‘Robocop’, a nickname he’s acquired thanks to his monotonous voice and predilection for law and order, failed to spot the irony earlier this year when he championed free speech at the Tunis international bookfair, just minutes before police shut down a stall selling Kamal Riahi’s unflattering biography of the president. Freedom of expression has its limits.

Sources: New York Times; Private Eye; Al Jazeera; Al Arabiya; The New Arab; Amnesty; Middle East Eye; Barron’s; The Guardian; BBC; Foreign Policy; Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).