Kais Saied, a former constitutional law professor at the University of Tunis, has been president of Tunisia since 2019. In late June 2021, Saied invoked emergency powers under the 2014 Tunisian Constitution to oust Prime Minister Hicham Mechichi, assume control over the government, shutter Parliament, and begin his rule of the country by decree—a move that some have described as a coup. Saied’s recent announcement that he will call a constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections to take place next year bodes well for a potential return to the rule of law, although in October, when he appointed a new government, he curtailed the powers of the Prime Minister—so we shouldn’t get our hopes up just yet.
One of Saied’s stated justifications for his extraordinary consolidation of power was the need to end rampant corruption. He has asserted that Tunisia is a country ruled “by two regimes, an apparent regime, that of the institutions, and a real regime, that of the mafia,” and he has vowed not to “engage in dialogue with ‘thieves.’” Saied defended his extraordinary invocation of emergency powers by highlighting the danger to the country posed by those who “lurk at home and abroad, and from those who see their office as booty or as a means to loot public funds.” This was not a new theme for Saied. Indeed, fighting the corruption of Tunisia’s elites has long been his rallying cry. When he ran for president in 2019 as a political outsider, he ran on an anticorruption platform that proved extraordinarily popular, especially with the younger generation. (Saied garnered an incredible 90% of the vote of young Tunisians in 2019.) And so far, his consolidation of power has also enjoyed widespread popular support—though it has started to wane recently.
Will Saied in fact follow through on his pledge to use his extraordinary powers to root out corruption in Tunisia? It’s hard to know for sure, but some prominent international commentary has defended Saied’s aggressive moves partly on the grounds that he is indeed taking actions that are necessary to counter the systemic corruption of the Tunisian elite. I am more skeptical. There are several factors that suggest Saied’s emphasis on fighting corruption is little more than a disingenuous and self-serving rationalization for an unjustified power grab. Continue reading