The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The law professor who set out to dismantle Tunisia’s democracy

Tunisian President Kais Saied with his wife after voting in a referendum on a new constitution. (Mohamed Messara/Shutterstock)
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TUNIS — Soon after he was elected president of Tunisia in late 2019, Kais Saied strolled into his usual coffee shop in the capital as if nothing had changed.

Farouk Chihaoui, who serves shisha, or tobacco water pipes, at the cafe, could not believe his eyes. Here was the man who until recently taught university law courses, always parked outside in an old Peugeot, paid off his tabs, and “looked exactly like the people.”

Except now, accompanied by security and greeted by a swarming crowd, he was their president. “I took a selfie like a friend would have. Frankly, it was pretty special.”

For Chihaoui, that encounter bolstered his belief, one shared among many of the president’s supporters, that Saied is one of them. He will vote “yes” Monday in a controversial referendum on a new constitution that Saied insists will lead Tunisia to a more prosperous future.

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Many other Tunisians believe the opposite will come true. They say Saied has spent the past year executing a drawn-out power grab and that his proposed constitution, published just weeks ago, was conceived through an illegitimate process. They say the referendum will only further cement his one-man rule and destroy the progress made since the country’s 2011 revolution overthrew dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and kicked off the Arab Spring across the Middle East.

With no minimum participation rate required and many of Saied’s opponents boycotting the process to avoid lending it credence, the referendum measure is widely expected to pass. His opponents criticized his decision to speak publicly about the referendum Monday in what they decried as a blatant violation of election silence rules. By late Monday night, election officials said turnout surpassed 27 percent, a higher showing than what many observers expected.

The vote comes one year to the day since Saied dismissed parliament and fired his prime minister, suddenly dividing the country between those who celebrated his decision as necessary to end an ongoing political crisis and those who decried it as a coup that threatened the survival of the only democracy to have come out of the Arab Spring.

The move, which came amid a deadly surge of coronavirus cases and political deadlock between the president and a divided parliament, was initially widely celebrated in Tunisia and threw Saied, a man who once seemed an unlikely candidate to wield such immense political power, into the spotlight.

His stilted manner of speech and insistence on using formal Arabic rather than the Tunisian dialect have earned him the nickname “RoboCop.” Even some of his supporters, including Chihaoui, acknowledge he lacks the typical charisma and gregariousness that so often accompanies a successful political figure.

Still, he ran for president at a moment when Tunisians, tired of a decade of failure to improve the economy and politicians who did not deliver on their promises, welcomed his status as a relative outsider in the political system and a perception of his trustworthiness. He won 73 percent of the vote.

He became immensely popular last summer with those who saw his drastic moves to suspend parliament as necessary to weed out corrupt or ineffectual officials, including in the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, once a dominant force in the government.

But for some of those supporters, the popularity was short-lived. Now the country, submerged in a worsening economic crisis and facing widespread political division, is grappling with what many of his onetime supporters see as the consequences of their earlier misconception.

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“He passed right under everyone’s nose,” said Abderraouf Betbaieb, a retired diplomat who has known Saied for decades and was part of his inner circle before quitting in 2020. “He plunged the country into crisis.”

Lawyer and politician Samia Abbou was never enthralled by Saied but was among those who applauded his unconventional intervention last July, hoping it would mark a fresh start for the country’s democracy.

But by September, when Saied announced an extension of the state of emergency and a further expansion of his powers, she felt he had veered too far off-script. Then, in December, he proclaimed that parliament would remain suspended until after a July referendum. Finally in March, he said parliament had been dissolved and has since replaced the members of the independent electoral commission with his appointees.

Now, she said, she feels certain the new constitution is just laying the groundwork for a “dictatorship.” “I cannot regret something that needed to happen,” she said of her support for his initial decision last July. But what came next “was done in bad faith. It was not honest.”

“He succeeded in dividing the people in two,” she said. “We have never lived through this, even under the regime of Ben Ali,” referring to the dictator ousted in 2011. “We have become fanatics, either for or against. People no longer smile together, even in a single family.”

Even the expert whom Saied tasked with writing the new constitution is among those now publicly decrying the president and boycotting the Monday vote, saying it would be an ethical “betrayal” for him to participate.

Sadok Belaid, the former dean of Tunis University’s law school who taught Saied as a young man, agreed this spring to lead the consultative commission responsible for crafting the new legal document. He had known Saied for decades, he said, and described him as having been “very affable, very nice, very modest.”

For weeks, Belaid recalled, he worked tirelessly on the project. The day after he submitted his completed version of the new constitution, he said, he checked into the hospital for an operation he had postponed to write the document.

Later that day, in his hospital bed and still under the effects of anesthesia, he said Saied visited him and handed him a pile of papers he described as a modified version of his work.

It was not until the president left that Belaid, who is in his 80s, realized he was holding an entirely different version of the constitution, one that Saied appeared to have largely written himself. The new version hands Saied further powers and reduces the influence of parliament, among other changes widely condemned by his opponents.

“It is a true comedy” that “ends badly,” Belaid said. “The reality is that the president used this prestige he has in the eyes of the population to pass a text that does not respond to the needs or demands of the people but to his own intentions.”

Back at the cafe, Chihaoui, said it was indeed Saied’s reputation as someone “cultivated” that drew him toward his candidacy. Still, in a Tunisia racked by political infighting, “I thought it was a dream.” He said, “A man of the people becoming president? It was not too logical.” Now that Saied is in power, he said, he supports any decision the president may make. “Everything he does is for the people.”

Just outside the cafe, Sami bin Mohamed, 42, a salesman, expressed a much less optimistic opinion. Smoking a cigarette, he bemoaned the worsening economic situation and said he will boycott the referendum. “Any president works for his own good,” he said. In poorer neighborhoods, he added, “everyone is planning to leave illegally. I don’t think it is possible to fix stuff around here.”

Downtown on Saturday, a small crowd gathered to protest the referendum and voice their support for the Ennahda party. “We are here because Mr. Kais Saied is doing a coup in Tunisia,” said Fathia Azaiz, 63. “He is changing everything,” she said. “The president is isolating himself and not being democratic.”

Nearby, Kawthar Guettiti, 36, a graphic designer, was walking with her 6-year-old daughter, who held a small Tunisian flag. She will be voting “yes” on Monday, she said, because she trusts that Saied intends to put the country on a sturdier path for her daughter’s future. “He has a background in law. He knows very well what he is doing. He won’t be a dictator any more than the others,” she said.

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