Tunisia's protest vote puts populists in driver's seat

Tunisia's protest vote puts populists in driver's seat
© Getty Images

In Tunisia’s second free presidential election in its history, voters picked two unconventional candidates with no government experience. The unofficial results of Sunday’s poll cast new doubt on the small North African nation’s prospects for stability and resumed growth. For the U.S., it’s a delicate dance to show support for the process and prepare for a less predictable relationship with Tunisia, when either of the two finalists is chosen in the second round by Oct. 13.  

The top vote-getters in the first round, Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui, have in common fuzzy programs, lack of experience in public office and major populist appeal. Otherwise, they could not be more different. 

Saied is a law professor; Karoui, who is in jail on charges of tax evasion and money laundering, has celebrity status through charity work backed by his popular television channel, Nessma TV. He was arrested for financial irregularities three weeks before the vote, but the courts could not block his candidacy.


The candidates also have stark policy differences. Saied believes in a “new revolutionary transition” where political parties have no leading role to play, and seeks to replace the current legislative system with one based on local representation. He has a conservative agenda, which includes opposing gender equality in matters of inheritance, supporting the death penalty and denouncing LGBT activism as driven by Western support. In foreign policy, there is a tinge of pan-Arabism and Islamism in his stances. Saied calls on Europe to take its “hands off the country’s riches” and to negotiate “fairer” relations with Tunisia. 

On the other side of the spectrum, Karoui is a liberal with strong international business and media connections. Domestically, the main item on his agenda is fighting poverty and improving social services. His Nessma TV supports a common Maghrebi identity and openness to the West. 

Through their choice of two outsiders, Tunisian voters seem to have repudiated the whole political class — in some cases even questioning many of the fundamental policies that have endured since independence from France in 1956. Turnout was about 45 percent (compared to more than 62 percent in the 2014 presidential election), suggesting the disillusionment of many voters over the political class and its inability to address unemployment or to close the gap between coastal cities and the country’s interior, where young people are susceptible to the siren call of extremism.

Pollsters’ data reveal that those who voted for Saied and Karoui included supporters from the secularist Nidaa Tounes party and the Islamist Ennahdha party, which formed the governing coalition in 2015. If Saied attracted many university-educated voters, Karoui’s supporters likely came from less-educated segments of the population.

The United States will face the reality of dealing with an inexperienced Tunisian president, and possibly many unorthodox members of parliament, after next month’s legislative elections. Since the fall of one-party rule in 2011, Tunisia’s Western friends have dealt with many uncertainties and new faces in the government, but this election could portend a deeper shift in the country’s political culture. 


It’s not clear whether Tunisia will fall into the category of the populist wave that parts of Europe are experiencing, but the election exposed some deep disillusionment with the government. From the early excitement of the Arab Spring, voters in this vanguard country are weary of promises and willing to try an anti-establishment leader.  

Some of Saied’s previous statements would seem to suggest he could be inclined towards upending the country’s established reputation as a reliable friend of the West, and turn Tunisia more toward its Islamic and Arabic roots. This could make cooperation with the small but strategic country more difficult and, in any case, less predictable. 

The United States long has maintained a friendly, productive relationship with Tunisia. From the 1960s, Tunisia has been a pioneer in moderation, avoiding the pendulum swings in Arab world ideological movements and carefully navigating its political and economic ties to the U.S. and the European Union, without the drama and turbulence of other Arab states.  

In recent years, security cooperation has expanded and the U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) has found Tunisia to be an important partner for conducting regional training for counterterrorism programs and for the campaign against the Islamic State, which has spread its influence in Northern Africa. On the civilian side, cultural and educational programs have enjoyed support from Tunisia, even when other Arab countries had grown suspicious of Western activities in support of democratization.  

Congress has supported aid to Tunisia, as a steady friend, moderate in its domestic and regional policies. Tunisia has been helpful on Arab-Israeli issues, for example. It has been a safe harbor for Libyans fleeing violence there, working to manage migration from its shores to Italy, and today has to cope with the uncertainties of Algeria and the continued chaos of Libya, its two large neighbors. 

But its economic success in the1990s led to its neglect by the U.S., which considered the country more self-sufficient than other aid recipients and no longer eligible for U.S. development assistance. That proved illusory, and the Obama administration expanded economic aid after the Arab Spring in 2011, to levels averaging more than $40 million annually. (With military and security aid, total levels are close to $200 million.) The Trump administration has steered aid to Tunisia heavily towards private-sector investment, but has planned for heavy cuts in aid for 2019 and 2020, which Congress may restore.

Tunisia under a President Saied or President Karoui will face the not unfamiliar challenge of a novice leader with strong ideas learning the legal and political constraints on his authority.  Tunisia’s competent technocrats will represent some stability in Tunisia’s partnerships, but the U.S. will need to invest more time and effort to maintain a productive relationship with this important state in transition.   

Oussama Romdhani is the chief editor of The Arab Weekly and a former Tunisian cabinet minister in the government of ex-President Ben Ali. Follow him on Twitter @EditorRomdhani.

Ellen Laipson directs the international security program at George Mason University and served in the U.S. government on Middle East affairs for 25 years.Her last post in government was vice chair of the National Intelligence Council (1997-2002). Follow on Twitter @ScharSchool.