Kais Saied
Image Credit: Seyyed de la Llata © Gulf News

When political analysts dissect the results of last Sunday’s presidential run-off election in Tunisia, they will wonder just how Kais Saied defied campaigning conventions and communications theory to win in a virtual landslide.

Saied won 73 per cent of the votes and has been wholly embraced by hundreds of thousands of young Tunisians in a victory that’s all the more remarkable: He ran little advertising. Instead, he ran on a message of personal integrity and honesty — rare in the hurly-burly world of politics generally, unprecedented in the rough-and-tumble tumult of Tunisia.

The 61-year old now becomes Tunisia’s sixth president, succeeding the late Beji Caid Essebsi who died in July. He took office five years earlier, just three years after a popular uprising that led to the overthrow of long-serving ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — an event that was a key catalyst in unleashing the Arab Spring first in Tunisia and then across North Africa. It’s a series of events from which repercussions are still rippling through that and other nations — and young Tunisians in particular believe that Saied and his reputation for integrity and honesty will restore their faith in the political process and in bringing change.

In the first round of presidential polling, a crowded field of 24 candidates vied for support. The retired academic and expert on constitutional law ran as an independent social conservative and garnered 620,711 first-round votes — enough to lead the field and set up last Sunday’s run-off against media mogul Nabil Karoui, a 56-year old who flooded the airwaves of his Nessma network, newspapers and streets with his image and populist message.

When the run-off campaign got underway, Karoui was behind bars and facing charges of money laundering and tax fraud.

To his credit, Saied said he wouldn’t campaign until Karoui was released. Simply put, it was either a politically naive move not to press home an advantage of having your opposition candidate jailed on corruption charges, or politically astute to demand his release to press home a message of personal integrity. Judgements aside, Karoui was released in the week before last Sunday’s vote. It made little difference to voters when it came to casting their ballots. In a turnout of 55 per cent, Saied won a landslide, roughly taking three ballots for every one cast to the media magnate.

Shortly after the results were announced, the president-elect appeared with his wife and three children and thanked young people for “turning a new page” in Tunisia’s history.

“We will try to build a new Tunisia,” he told supporters. “Young people led this campaign, and I am responsible to them.”

Given that throughout the campaign he declined to speak through the Tunisian dialect but instead opted for Arabic proper to deliver his socially conservative message, it clearly resonated with voters in a nation that is still trying to come to grips with the after effects of the Arab Spring. Said was a member of the committee of experts that helped draft Tunisia’s post-Arab Spring constitution, which was adopted in 2014, and he has occasionally appeared on television as a political commentator.

Saied’s election as president caps a remarkable rise for a man who was born into a family with modest means but firmly set intellectual roots in the town of Beni Khiar. His paternal uncle, Hicham Saied, was Tunisia’s fist paediatric surgeon and celebrated for separating conjoined twins in the 1970s.

He has been married to Ichraf Chabil whom he met while he was a law student. Together they have three children and she is now a respected judge in her own right. Saied says she won’t serve as First Lady following his election.

Saied’s rise in legal academia had been steady, notable for his tenure as a professor of law and the University of Tunis before retiring last year. He also served as the secretary-general of the Tunisian Association of Constitutional Law between 1990 and 1995, then became its vice-president. He also served as Dean of Law at the University of Sousse and a legal expert for the Arab League.

During the campaign, Saied ran on a message of social conservatism but also hit out at the Israeli regime for its cancerous role in Middle Eastern politics. He said Tunisia and Tunisians have no problems with Jews and that many Tunisians, including his father, sheltered them during the Second World War.

His anti-corruption message, however, appealed across the political spectrum, and his stoic and stiff image — he was referred to as a robot in some unflattering reports on his rival’s media networks — merely served to underline his personal integrity. Clearly, it’s an image that Tunisians crave in a nation that has fundamental economic issues undermining its politics.

— Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe