Tunisia's 'poker face' president sworn in

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Article Summary
Tunisia's new president, whose stolid demeanor earned him the nickname "RoboCop," has vowed to combat corruption.

Kais Saied, a conservative law professor and political novice, was sworn in as Tunisia’s president today, ushering in what many hope will be a new era of clean governance and accountability.

In a hope-infused inaugural speech before parliament, Saied emphasized people power and vowed to combat endemic corruption that has persisted since Tunisia’s 2011 Jasmine Revolution. “There will be no tolerance in wasting any cent of the people’s money,” he said. “Fighting poverty is a must and responsibility on our shoulders.”

Saied, who won a landslide victory in the Oct. 13 runoff against media magnate Nabil Karoui, warned Islamist extremist groups in the small North African nation that “we will fight the threat of terrorism, and a bullet from a terrorist will trigger bursts of bullets from our side.” This will be music to Western ears. A commonly touted and unproven statistic is that more people from Tunisia joined the Islamic State than from any other country. The United States and the EU view Tunisia as a vital partner in the fight against terrorism. Saied’s conservatism had raised questions in Western capitals on where he stood on the matter.

Saied’s speech, summarized by the online news and research site Barr al-Aman, indicated that the president wants to ease such worries.

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In an apparent bid to retract earlier comments about equal inheritance for women — he said he opposed it — the 61-year-old said women’s rights need to be expanded. “The dignity of the people is in the dignity of women,” he said.

Some were skeptical. "We'll hold you accountable. Can't wait," tweeted Wafa Ben-Hassine, a lawyer and policy manager at Access Now, a digital rights group. "I have to say his poker face is scary," she added. Saied's emotionless gaze has earned him the nickname "RoboCop." His priggishness extends to gays. He called homosexuality a disease and a foreign plot.

Saied also said that as president he carried “the same commitment for our international obligations,” which was seen by some as an allusion to the country’s $2.8 billion loan facility with the International Monetary Fund. He added, however, that “cooperation between peoples is the most important,” which suggests he is in favor of revising some of the more draconian terms of the program that have met with fierce popular resistance, such as the freezing of public sector wages.

Saied stressed that he was not against Jews. “We protected them and are ready to do it again,” he said. But he made it clear that Tunisia would continue to champion the cause of the Palestinians. “Our position is not negotiable under any deal,” he said.

Tunisia currently holds the presidency of the Arab League, where Saied served as a legal adviser. He has not indicated his position on readmitting Syria to the league.

Saied’s next order of business will be to invite the winner of the Oct. 6 parliamentary elections — the pro-Islamic Ennahda — to form the country’s next government. Ennahda led the polls with a modest 18% of the vote. Karoui’s Qalb Tounes closely followed, leaving both parties well below the 109 seats needed to govern alone. A slew of independents crossed the 3% threshold to win seats, resulting in a fractured parliament. 

Saied secured his 74% victory with support from disaffected young Tunisians — over 90% of Tunisians aged 18 to 25 voted for him. Yet he has no party of his own, and therefore he has none of the attendant patronage networks that might propel some of the independents to band together and hitch their wagon to the president. 

His reputation for probity and unshakable integrity, running his campaign from a modest apartment in Tunis, makes it unlikely that he would respond to their overtures. 

It also remains to be seen how Saied will conduct relations with Ennahda, which endorsed him in the runoff after its own candidate ranked third in the first round of the presidential election Sept. 15. It may seek to cash in on its support, though it's unclear for what. Both Ennahda and Saied champion decentralizing power. 

Saied signaled that he will remain fiercely independent. Amy Hawthorne, deputy director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based think tank, told Al-Monitor, “Voter mobilization for Kais Saied was strong — through many networks — and Tunisians presumably see him as a leader who can influence a wide range of issues in the country.” Hawthorne continued, “In this regard, it will be fascinating to watch how Saied translates his decisive mandate into tangible change for Tunisians. Tunisia is entering a new political phase whose contours and tenor is not yet clear.”

Under Tunisia’s post-revolutionary constitution, adopted in 2014, the president shares executive powers with the prime minister. He is in charge of defense, foreign policy and national security. He is also the commander in chief of Tunisia’s armed forces and has the ability to declare war. The president is elected for a five-year term that can be renewed once.

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Found in: Tunisia elections

Amberin Zaman is a senior correspondent reporting from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe exclusively for Al-Monitor. Zaman has been a columnist for Al-Monitor for the past five years, examining the politics of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and writing the daily Briefly Turkey newsletter.  Prior to Al-Monitor, Zaman covered Turkey, the Kurds and conflicts in the region for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016, and has worked as a columnist for several Turkish language outlets. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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