It wasn’t clear what Tunisia’s President Kais Saied was thinking when he turned to his security council and launched his racially charged broadside against the country’s undocumented black migrant community. Whether he anticipated the violence his words would unleash, the degree to which they represented a long held belief, or had been seized magpie-like, from among the various conspiracy theories circling over the Presidential Palace in Carthage, Tunis.

Irrespective of his intention, the impact was immediate, with racist mobs hunting down those suspected of being in the country irregularly, evicting families from their homes and attacking them in the street. 

International alarm over the well of racist sentiment the President’s speech tapped into, added to existing concern over the Presidency’s authoritarian direction and his escalating use of conspiracies and plots to attack his adversaries.

At the time of writing, more than twenty opponents and critics of the President have been arrested, many charged with plotting against the state, defamation and others with conspiring with terrorists. The offices of the opposition groups, Ennahda and the National Salvation Front have been closed and the leader of the former, self styled Muslim Democrat, Rachid Ghannouchi, has been arrested. 

Across the media, the formerly vibrant conversation over the direction of the country has stalled, leaving either silence or the most vocal supporters of the President to dominate the national airwaves. 

However, Saied’s entire approach to politics, from his championing of ‘the people,’ to his opposition to institutions, such as the former parliament, or the judges that he regards as standing in his way and his loose relationship with facts, all find echoes around the world. They’re visible in the Presidencies of the United States’ Donald Trump, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and, closer to home, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. 

None of this to claim they share policy positions. Individually, presentations can also differ remarkably. However, their style of rule shares much of the same political DNA. That is to say, populist. 

Charges of populism are often overused. For the large part, the term’s been reduced to a lazy shorthand for any style of politics we just don’t like. However, at its heart, it’s simply characterising a style of politics where the leader consistently claims to be placing the needs of the population or ‘the people’ over those of the ruling elite. 

As a style, it’s one whose success has ebbed and flowed throughout history. However, “it is probably fair to say that over the past decade or so, populists have enjoyed more success on a global scale than ever before,” said Associate Professor Benjamin Moffitt from the Australian Catholic University who, quite literally, wrote the book, The Global Rise of Populism, on the subject. 

Previously, populists were often seen as upstart challengers or as a novelty, whereas now they are often in power, in coalition, or have replaced the ‘usual’ mainstream left or right parties in their countries. On top of this, populism itself has become more ‘mainstreamed’, with many politicians of all stripes adopting elements of populist style,” he wrote by email.

In that regard, Kais Saied’s Presidency has been as much about what it isn’t as what it is. While Trump or Berlusconi may have lusted after spectacle, Saied appears to have made a virtue of his humility, positioning himself as a man of the people, taking on the unscrupulous political class.  

In many of the down at heel urban suburbs across Tunisia, Saied’s battles with the country’s jurists and the remnants of the last parliament are viewed as an honest man confronting a corrupt elite. It’s ironic, that, simultaneously, the same events are viewed by the United Nations and much of the western media as a political bull loose in Tunisia’s democratic china shop. 

In the working class suburb of Sidi Hassine, Tunis, a warm wind blows in from the still waters of Sebkhet Sejoumi. Nizar Chaibi has been awake since 2am. “I support the President,” he says from in front of his truck, loaded with the onions he’d collected from Sidi Bouzid, some 245 km distant, that morning. “I like him. He’s honest and he understands the people,” he tells a translator. The sentiment finds echoes across the district. 

Nevertheless, to many observers, not least those in Europe, Saied’s performance in office has been less than stellar. Much of the massive political capital that greeted the move his opponents have since labelled a coup in July of 2021 has been spent on rewriting the country’s constitution, a project that few outside of his immediate circle had previously thought or cared about. 

The struggling economy, whose long decline helped spark the 2011 revolution, has been left to drift. Prices for consumer goods are higher than they’ve ever been, just as the value of the Dinar, the national currency, is at its lowest. Migration, now including those of the undocumented black migrants fleeing the President’s racially charged crackdown, has increased exponentially. 

In the media, the free speech the President swore to uphold has withered on the vine, with self censorship, through either a curious sense of nationalism, or fear of prosecution under laws criminalising anything deemed ‘fake news‘, has become the norm.  

However, intended or not, there is political capital to be gained in Saied’s remorseless drive to purge and reform. While the polling companies of Sigma and Emrhod are historically more geared to testing commercial rather than political markets, both show consistent support for the President. According to surveys published by both in early February, Saied enjoyed a significant lead over potential rivals in the next Presidential election. What those numbers might be after the arrest of the President’s most prominent critic, the leader of the self styled ‘Muslim Democrat’ group, Rachid Ghannouchi, is anyone’s guess. 


Viewed from around the world, there’s little that is unique in Saied’s railing against the “conspirators” of the old parliament or the political class.  Much of the rhetoric from those campaigning for the UK to break with the EU, or the enablers of American President Donald Trump, also claimed to be pitting themeslves against intellectual elites, or the deep state. 

In President Saied’s case, those elites have taken the shape of the old parties, the political class that surrounded them, and much of the international order.

It’s not a difficult target. 

Before its eventual shuttering, debate in the parliament was frequently overshadowed by fistfights, headline grabbing stunts and fractious debate that typically led nowhere. In the country’s streets, suffering incredible mortality rates from a pandemic that appeared to have no end, a fumbled bid by the then prime minister, Hichem Mechichi delivered nothing but shortages in supplies, confusion and brawls.

With parts of the country going hungry, not least those in the rural hinterland, historical suspicion of widespread graft morphed into absolute certainty. Today, large swathes of the public still hold that all of parties and politicians, not least those belonging to the former majority party, Ennahda, had become entirely subsumed by corruption. From a rotten centre, people saw corruption emanating outwards, tainting the judiciary and almost all aspects of the state. 

Into this, from the halls of academia, entered Kais Saied,  the white knight ready to face down the dragon of official corruption. It’s a perception that holds. Question anyone in the overlooked and underdeveloped suburbs around the country’s principal cities and you’ll hear the same thing, that the President is clean. That he is above corruption. That he is seeking out those who have profited from the country’s misery and holding them to account. 

From his closing of parliament, which drew thousands out into the streets across the country to celebrate, to his dramatic restructuring of the judiciary, every move against the former political class has strengthened his support among those for whom the parliament’s selective blindness over past rights abuses, including the arbitrary arrest and torture of over 1,000 young people in January 2021, remains a fresh and painful memory. 

“The People”

Every political leader has claimed to speak for the people. However, for populist leaders, such as Trump and Chavez, this notion of ‘the people’ has all but defined them. Every political speech is phrased in the popular dialect, designed to speak directly to the needs of the crowd. Irrespective of their relevance to national importance. True, few would ever accuse Saied of using a common dialect, however, his concerns offer up a perfectly judged mirror to those of his supporters.

Division within the public is jettisoned, and nuance distilled into a broad and amalgamous mass, one which only the leader can claim to understand and channel. Those who claim otherwise, are the elite, so have no voice worth listening to. 

However, this isn’t to say that Saied doesn’t approach the subject of ‘the people’ with some credibility.  For years, he travelled the country, talking to Tunisia’s jobless and the frustrated and listening to their concerns. As much as his education as a Constitutional Professor, Saied’s vision is informed by the hunger and desperation he encountered talking to the young, the unemployed and the angry of Tunisia’s hinterland. 

Naima Romdhani, who works in one of the car rental shops around Sidi Hassine, nails it, “He supports the poor.” 


Deliberate or not, conspiracies and plots have taken the place of the endless campaigning of, say, Donald Trump, drawing upon simmering discontent over the state of the country and directing it unambiguously to the target of President Saied’s ire.

Whether the timing of the current purge of Saied’s critics and opponents, which followed so swiftly on the heels of a dismal turnout for his restructured parliament was intended or not is besides the point. What matters is that it did, galvanising support for the President when that support was at its lowest. 

All the while, as the economy shrinks, prices rise and discontent grows, the advantage of pointing to a shadowy elite and blaming the public’s ills on private greed, such as the rising food prices on ‘profiteers’ and speculators,’ is hard to argue with. 

In Soukra, standing behind her market stall, Chaima Anouar explained how she and her family had always supported the President, “but more so since these arrests.” Unpalatable though it is, the celebrations of those who gathered outside 81 year-old Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi’s house upon his arrest cannot be easily dismissed. 

Kais Saied needs conspiracies,” Dr Hamza Meddeb of Carnegie said, “Whether it’s the price of food, the criminal plot to settle black Africans inside Tunisia, or the assassination attempts, (which Saied has claimed). He knows this“. He points to new enemies and draws on the polarisation that accusing them of conspiring against the state, or whatever, causes.

People are scared. They need scapegoats and, with nothing positive to point to,  Saied’s providing them with enemies among the old political class,” he said. 

Making Tunisia Great Again 

Saied’s purging of his opponents and attacks upon undocumented black migrants has come at a cost. Principally, at the expense of the country’s once celebrated position within the international democratic order. 

Ignoring Tunisia’s perilous amount of debt, Saied has rebuffed criticism from the United Nations, the US and the EU among others, rejecting their censure out of hand as “foreign interference.” 

In President Saied’s telling, Tunisia, long accustomed to regarding itself as reliant upon international largesse, is a strong and independent nation, more than capable of diagnosing its own faults. Anyone wanting to help Tunisia, he added in February, should “return our looted money and drop the accumulated debts.”

In many ways, Saied’s rejection of overseas’ concern carries echoes of the UK’s Brexit campaign, or, for the most part, the entire Presidency of Donald Trump’s “America First” platform. Both Trump and the self styled “spartans” of the British Brexiteers sought advantage in opposition to the international order, even going so far as to pick fights where none existed. 

“It’s about the economy, stupid”

Despite Tunisia’s dismal finances, economic success has not always served as a prerequisite for public popularity. 

Despite dominating Italian politics through much of the 2000s, Berlusconi oversaw one of the lowest growth rates in the world, with productivity, incomes and living standards all left to stagnate. In Venezuela, despite his massive popularity, Hugo Chavez was still responsible for crashing the economy, leaving one of the most prosperous countries in South America in tatters by the time of his death in 2013. 

However, economic progress is not always at the top of the political firebrand’s agenda. “Populism is not in any way interested in stability: populists are often there to disrupt politics, shake up the system, and providing a safe set of hands for the market is not usually their raison d’être,” Professor Moffit wrote, “When it comes to economic progress, it really depends on the case: some populist left movements, parties and leaders have been the loudest voices for fair economic progress in recent years.

In this light, there’s nothing particularly novel about Saied’s dismissal of the IMF’s “diktats,” or his diplomatic rebuffs delivered to its major shareholder, the United States, when criticising his crackdown on political adversaries. While financial alternatives to a further IMF bailout appear thin on the ground, Saied’s position, that Tunisians can call upon their own resources to weather the coming storm, appears to be reaping public reward. 

The sense that spiralling prices are a situation outside of the President’s gift is shared by many who continue to support the man who has ruled by decree since July 2021, placing responsibility elsewhere.  “I don’t blame the President,” Jalel said from near the metro terminus in Soukra, Tunis. “I blame those he’s investigating,” he told a translator. Of the more than 20 opponents and critics now held by authorities. “They’ve caused the shortages. Since they’ve been in prison, everything has gotten better.” 


While many political scientists would caution against conflating populism with authoritarianism, Saied’s political purges, along with his reliance on the security services and judiciary, position him fairly unambiguously in the latter camp. 

Overseeing the work of a restructured judiciary, the members of its governing body appointed by the President personally, or in military courts, whose use dates back long before the President’s 2021 powergrab, that justice in Tunisia might prove independent remains a distant hope. 

There’s little that is new in this. Prosecutions for defaming officials, protesting in one of the country’s poorer neighbourhoods, or conflating verses of the Quran and Covid warnings, as well as the routine persecution of the country’s LGBTQ community, along with many others, were long hallmarks of Tunisia’s post revolutionary democratic journey. However, under Saied most of these biases have become formalised. 

The President even acknowledged the stacking of the judicial deck in February, when he told judges overseeing the first wave of his opponents ‘prosecution, saying,anyone who dares to acquit [those arrested] is their accomplice.

That the President is also reliant upon the security services for support is evidenced by the number of late night pronouncements to have come from the Ministry of Interior’s building in central Tunis. 

This isn’t a one way street. According to Dr Meddeb, the security services have also likely spied opportunity in the President’s reliance upon them, leveraging their influence to reoccupy the streets after over a decade in post-revolutionary retreat.

This is what the security services have been waiting for,” Dr Meddeb said, “It doesn’t matter if they believe in the President or what he’s saying. This is their opportunity. This is their chance to take back and control the public space,” he said. 

When the hurly burly’s done

Kais Saied’s story remains unwritten. For now, as long as the memories and resentments of the parliament he closed linger, the country will likely remain with him. However, just as it helped kickstart a revolution over a decade ago, Tunisia’s stuttering economy may prove his undoing. Impervious to either populist appeal or the security service’s ominous threat, declining living standards and escalating prices cannot be spun beyond a given point, or explained away as conspiracy. 

Ultimately, hunger has no allegiance.

Cartoons Courtesy of Z.