TUNIS (Reuters) – Described by those who know him as set in his opinions and trusting of only a tight circle, a former constitutional law professor now holds the future of Tunisia’s young democracy in his formally suited grasp.
When President Kais Saied addressed supporters on Monday in the town that began Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, he swore he would not turn back from the July intervention that his critics called a coup.
Saied denies having dictatorial aspirations and defends his actions as constitutional, but two months after sacking the prime minister, suspending parliament and assuming executive power he has made no clear statement about Tunisia’s future.
It leaves him, backed only by a tiny, inexperienced team, to develop his pet project of passing a new constitution while attempting to govern Tunisia and avert a rapidly looming collapse of public finances.
“Today nobody is participating because he is the only one who decides… you cannot do this by yourself,” said a senior Tunisian politician.
To the large majority who back Saied, his actions were the necessary work of a rare man of integrity to oust a corrupt, sclerotic political elite after years of stagnation and relaunch Tunisia’s revolution.
His critics, drawn from across Tunisia’s political spectrum and among the most engaged elements of civil society, say he is inexperienced, isolated and uncompromising, and fear that when economic frustrations breed opposition, he will grow autocratic.
He swept into office in a 2019 landslide as an austere, frugal scourge of corruption with a severe, formal manner that vividly contrasted with that of Tunisia’s groomed political elite.
Run from a small upstairs apartment in an old downtown Tunis building with no elevator, broken windows and peeling paintwork, the enthusiastic young staffers joked the campaign cost no more than the price of a coffee and a packet of cigarettes.
Upon his election he had little doubt of the scale of his victory, declaring it “like a new revolution” and showing impatience as time passed with the messy political processes of parliament and a succession of governing coalitions.
“Whoever knows Saied understands his behaviour… He is a very stubborn person and does not change his positions easily… His relationships are few… He only trusts his close circle,” said a former university colleague.
Saied has repeatedly promised to name a new government “soon” and one of his advisers has said he is planning to suspend the constitution and offer a new version via public referendum.
Tunisians have been waiting on both announcements for almost two months as both foreign donors and important Tunisian political players urge him to hurry up.
Looming rapidly in the background, Tunisia’s public finances are in crisis and time is already running out to avert disaster as Saied’s intervention paused talks with the International Monetary Fund for a loan that would unlock other assistance.
A big backlog of government work is building up, diplomats and politicians say. “Whoever enters the office on that first day as prime minister will find a thousand files,” said the senior politician.
A former adviser to Saied and Tunisian politicians who have worked with the presidency said everything flows through a single official – his 40-year old chief of staff, Nadia Akacha, a favourite student from his lecturing days.
“The president has clear ideas and convictions and is stubborn … I think he’s the one making all decisions himself,” said the former adviser, adding that Saied had total confidence in Akacha, who alone “holds all the files”.
The president has denied being isolated, but he has not met any Tunisian political leaders or the head of the very powerful labour union for weeks and has spurned calls for dialogue or an inclusive approach to resolving the crisis.
His critics fear this will leave him reliant on the security forces, whose ranks he has purged down to mid-ranking levels, a Western diplomat and a security official said.
So far, despite some arrests and the widespread use of travel bans for people accused of corruption, Saied and the security forces have not tried to suppress dissent.
But as more people get worried about Tunisia’s direction and protests start to take place, his promise to protect rights will soon start to be tested.
Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Nick Macfie