Kais Saied, the Tunisian president who has plunged the country into a new political crisis, has always been something of a political blank slate.
A surprise winner of the 2019 elections, the rise to power of Saied, 63, a dry law professor with little political experience and no party to speak of, spoke to the disillusionment of Tunisians with their country following the 2011 revolution that sparked the Arab spring.
But the point of Saied for many Tunisians, the young in particular, was precisely that. He was boring to the extent of being the butt of jokes for his somnolence-inducing delivery – he was nicknamed RoboCop.
He was untainted by Tunisia’s post-revolution politics and accusations of corruption. He seemed, two years ago at least, like a safe pair of hands.
Succeeding Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in office, the scholarly Saied interposed himself in an election that was dominated by the arrest and imprisonment of the high-profile media mogul Nabil Karoui over allegations of corruption, who dominated the headlines and used his television channel to buff his image as a philanthropist.
Saied, who taught law at Tunis University, made no bones about his conservative beliefs – he is opposed to LGBTQ+ rights – and presenting himself as the anti-corruption and social justice candidate in a country where many had become disillusioned with the post-dictatorship democratic politics, not least that represented by Ennahda, the moderate Islamist political movement.
While Saied was elected into a position that had relatively little influence in comparison with the country’s divided parliament, he has expressed his desire for a new constitution that would give the president more power.
That resulted in a series of confrontations over the past year between Saied and recent prime ministers as well as the parliament’s speaker, Rachid Ghannouchi, the veteran leader of Ennahda who returned to Tunisia from exile in France in 2011 after the downfall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Competition over who controls the security forces and over appointments to cabinet roles has complicated the already messy response to the Covid-19 pandemic in Tunisia as well popular discontent with Tunisia’s post-revolution economic situation in a country where the tourism industry was hard hit by two major terrorist attacks aimed at foreign visitors.
The political crisis over the coronavirus crisis came to a head last week when Saied ordered the army to take control of the health response after the sacking of the health minister and the botched handling of vaccine walk-in centres. It culminated in popular protests against the government and Ennahda that have resulted in the dismissal of the government by Saied, leading to accusations by the Islamist party of a coup.
Those fears were underlined by a televised statement by Saied warning that the armed forces “will respond with bullets” to “any who think of resorting to weapons … and whoever shoots a bullet”.
Saied, who is regarded as a constitutional expert, has said his moves are legitimate under the country’s constitution, arguing that article 80 allowed him to suspend parliament and suspend immunity for MPs in the face of “imminent danger”.
“Many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people,” he said.
Saied’s critics say he has over-interpreted his constitutional powers, amid a long-running dispute both over the constitution and over appointments to the court that was supposed to clarify power’s in Tunisia’s complex post-revolution political settlement.
“We are navigating the most delicate moments in the history of Tunisia,” Saied said on Sunday.
Imed Ayadi, an Ennahda member, likened Saied to the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who deposed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in 2013. “Saied is a new Sisi who wants to collect all authority for himself … We will stand up to the coup against the revolution,” he said.