Recently-jailed media mogul faces 'Robocop' in Tunisia presidential election

Recently-jailed media mogul faces 'Robocop' in Tunisia presidential election
In an unusual election, Tunisians will choose between two candidates who have never held political office to be the North African country's next president.
3 min read
13 October, 2019
Tunisia will choose between Nabil Karoui [L] and Kais Saied [R] [Getty]
Tunisians will vote on Sunday in an unusual presidential election pitting a populist tycoon who just got out of jail against a conservative professor backed by resurgent Islamists.

Voters will choose between two candidates who have never held political office, making for an unprecedented election.

The top performer in last month's first-round vote was 61-year-old Kais Saied, an enigmatic former constitutional law professor dubbed "Robocop" for his austere bearing.

His challenger is Nabil Karoui, a glib, 56-year-old media mogul who spent most of the campaign behind bars on accusations of money laundering and tax evasion that he calls politically driven.

The only thing the men have in common is their outsider status.

The 'macaroni man'

A well-heeled entrepreneur who just started his political party this year, Karoui campaigned on promises to fight the poverty that has hobbled Tunisia since its 2011 pro-democracy uprising unleashed revolts around the Arab world.

Detractors dubbed him "Nabil Macaroni" because his party distributes the noodles to the poor. He embraced it: "Nabil Macaroni, and proud to be," Radio Mosaique quoted him as saying on Friday.

Tunisia's election takes place on Sunday [Getty]

During an unprecedented TV debate, Karoui promised to combat extremist violence by "attacking at its roots" and raising economic prospects in struggling provinces that are fertile recruiting grounds for the Islamic State group and other extremists.

A self-proclaimed modernist, he said he would seek partnerships with companies such as Microsoft, Google and Netflix to create jobs, and holds up women as pillars of society.


Saied, a conservative independent supported by the Islamist party Ennahdha, has drawn in support with his Mr. Clean image and by promising to rehaul the "pyramid of power" to give poorer provinces and youth more decision-making power.

He sits poker-straight, his blank visage hiding any visible sign of emotion, and speaks in a staccato style — and in literary Arabic, a tongue inaccessible to many in Tunisia's rural interior. Firmly conservative, he opposes equal inheritance rights for daughters and sons, arguing that the hot-button issue is decided by the Quran, the Muslim holy book.

Despite the backing of moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, which won last week's parliamentary elections, he describes himself as politically neutral.

"I am independent and will remain so until the end of my life," he said

Both men want Tunisia to work to bring peace to neighbouring Libya.

An unusual campaign

For very different reasons, neither Karoui nor Saied has campaigned in a traditional way.

Saied let youthful supporters do much of the campaigning for him while Karoui gave the job to his wife while he tried to get released from prison.

After their televised debate Friday, they cordially shook hands - a gesture Tunisians celebrated as a sign that their democracy is on the right track.

Read more: Upcoming legislative elections will set Tunisia's future political path of action

But whoever wins the presidency of Tunisia, tucked between Algeria and Libya, has tough challenges ahead, from trying to bolster a flagging economy, injecting hope into the despairing hinterlands and staying atop a constant counter-terrorism effort.

The new president will also have to work with a fractious parliament, the result of legislative elections on October 6 that gave no party a clear majority.

Tunisia held its presidential election early following the July death in office of President Beji Caid Essebsi.

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