Tunisia’s presidential vote pits professor vs. prisoner

Tunisian independent law professor Kais Saied speaks to his supporters and the media after advancing to the second round in the country's presidential elections, in Tunis. (AP/File)
Updated 29 September 2019

Tunisia’s presidential vote pits professor vs. prisoner

  • Prof. Kais Saied is refusing to hold rallies, print posters or use any of the usual marketing that drives a modern presidential campaign

NABEUL, TUNISIA: The professor refuses to campaign for president and the prisoner cannot, yet both are running for Tunisia’s highest office.

Tunisian voters sent two political outsiders into the presidential runoff, forcing a choice between an obscure conservative law professor who believes Tunisians know enough about him already and a media magnate whose face is plastered over posters nationwide, but who has been in jail for the last month on corruption allegations.

Prof. Kais Saied is refusing to hold rallies, print posters or use any of the usual marketing that drives a modern presidential campaign. He won the first round on Sept. 15, with 18 percent of the vote.

In second with 15 percent support was Nabil Karaoui, a jailed mogul who sends out Facebook missives and letters via his wife and lawyers but otherwise must reply upon supporters and his longstanding reputation as the head of a charity that hands out macaroni and other gifts to the poor — or potential voters, depending on your perspective. He denies the charges, claiming they aim to hurt him at the polls.

Those results mean that fewer than one in five who voted in the first presidential round will actually get the leader they wanted, a major test for Tunisia’s young democracy.

The North African nation on the Mediterranean Sea was the fountainhead of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, touched off by the self-immolation of a young fruit vendor. It has already elected one president, who died this summer at 92. It has also elected a Parliament, dominated by the Islamist Ennahdha party. But Ennahdha’s candidate was resoundingly defeated in the first presidential round on Sept. 15 — a message the party has acknowledged as it threw its support behind Saied.

In the midst of the campaigning for the second tour, the authoritarian leader ousted in the 2011 protests, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, died last week, soon after the defeat of the candidate most saw as an emblem of nostalgia for his regime.

“Tunisia is not immune to what's happening in the rest of the world,” said Jaouher Mghirbi, head of the parliamentary list for Karaoui’s Heart of Tunisia party in Nebeul, a region outside the capital where the absent candidate fared unusually well. “This is a message from the citizens that they did not trust the system. We have to analyze it, because the survival of democracy depends upon it.”

Saied, who speaks an almost mono-tonal classical Arabic in public rather than the Tunisian dialect of every other candidate, does not seem to see it in such stark terms. Known as a methodical scholar of constitutional law, he lacks political party, personal charisma and social media presence. He refused to acknowledge that he even has an opponent and does not campaign, but he has the support of legions of young Tunisians who spread their enthusiasm on Twitter and their elders who project on him their hopes for the future.

What he offers — in addition to his reputation as a leading conservative intellectual — is a blank slate.

“We will be the enemy of no one, we will be the enemy of nothing. What is most important is the next stage, a stage of construction, or reconstruction of the country,” he said after the first-round results.

In the city of Ben Gardane, the economy all but died after the 2011 protests in Tunisia and the subsequent uprising in nearby Libya degenerated into a free-for-all among warring militias. The town’s roads are pitted, dusty, and lined with empty storefronts. Khalifa Mars, an unemployed 56-year-old, said he voted for Saied.

“I think he will give more to our country to develop it and especially to develop the economy,” he told The Associated Press. “We live in the city of Ben Gardane, a forgotten city, a city that has no source of jobs, no industry, an almost Saharan city, next to the sea, but no industry.”

Tunisia’s election commission has set Oct. 13 for the presidential runoff. Karaoui’s next court date is Oct. 2 at the earliest, giving him at best 11 days to campaign. Election authorities have said he can debate Saied via a live feed from his cell, if necessary.

In a van plastered with peeling stickers bearing Karaoui’s face, Mghirbi recently ventured into one of the poor neighborhoods that serve as Karaoui’s base. He was mobbed by ululating supporters as he passed around posters and stickers. The party promises solidarity and development, but has no concrete plans to improve Tunisia’s economy.

Around a third of all of Tunisia’s young people are unemployed and large swathes of its rural center have no electricity, drinking water or functioning schools.

“At least Karaoui gives us macaroni. The others did nothing,” one woman shouted as she waved a red flier on an unpaved road.

But the absence of Karaoui, who has been compared to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, clearly weighed upon Mghirbi.

“Everywhere in the world, electing a leader means electing the person,” he said.

As Tunisia awaits its next leader, massive challenges lie ahead for this nation of 11.5 million people.

“We’re living in difficult times,” said Mars. “God willing, we want someone who will change our situation and do some good for our country.”

Turkish shelling kills 9 regime personnel in NW Syria: monitor

Updated 25 February 2020

Turkish shelling kills 9 regime personnel in NW Syria: monitor

  • UN says it was trying to double aid deliveries across a border crossing from Turkey from 50 to 100 trucks a day.
  • Idlib has seen hundreds of thousands of people flee the violence

BEIRUT: Turkish shelling Monday killed nine regime fighters in northwest Syria, where Ankara-backed rebels are fighting off advancing regime forces, a monitor said.
Syrian regime forces have since December clawed back parts of the last major opposition bastion of Idlib in violence that has displaced almost a million people.
Fighting raged on Monday, killing almost 100 fighters on both sides around the jihadist-dominated bastion, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
Those included 41 pro-regime fighters, as well as 53 jihadists and allied rebels.
Overall on Monday, the regime advanced rapidly in the south of the bastion, but lost the town of Nayrab along the M4 highway to Turkish-backed rebels in the southeast.
Turkish shelling in that area killed four regime fighters near Nayrab and another five near the town of Saraqeb to its east, the Britain-based Observatory said.
Opposition fighters had already broken back into Nayrab last week after the regime seized it at the start of the month, but then lost it again several hours later.
Saraqeb, which lies at the intersection of the M4 and another important highway the M5, has been under regime control since February 8.
Earlier Monday, Russian air strikes killed five civilians in the Jabal Al-Zawiya area in the south of the bastion, the Observatory said.
In fighting on the ground, regime forces seized 10 towns and villages south of the M4, which links the coastal regime stronghold of Latakia to government-held second city Aleppo, it said.
State news agency SANA, for its part, said “units of the Syrian army continued to progress in the south of Idlib” province.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the regime’s aim was to wrest back control of stretches of the M4 still under the control of jihadists and allied rebels.
That would require operations against the towns of Ariha and Jisr Al-Shughur, both along the M4.
Analysts expect a tough battle for Jisr Al-Shughur, held by the jihadist Turkistan Islamic Party whose fighters mainly hail from China’s Uighur Muslim minority.
They are allied to Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, a group led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate which dominates the Idlib region.
Loyalist forces have already taken back control of the M5, which connects the capital with Aleppo.
They have also secured the region around the northern city, a major pre-war industrial hub.
Fighting in northwest Syria since December has forced some 900,000 people to flee their homes and shelters amid bitter cold.
The United Nations said Monday that the latest fighting was coming “dangerously close” to encampments of the displaced, risking an imminent “bloodbath.”
Mark Cutts, a UN humanitarian coordinator, also told reporters in Geneva that the world body was trying to double aid deliveries across a border crossing with Turkey from 50 to 100 trucks a day.
Syria’s war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.