New PM delivers message of hope to Tunisians whose patience is “wearing thin”

Incoming president, Kais Saied, gave rise to widespread optimism for the future of Tunisia when, in his inaugural address, he acknowledged that the patience of his countrymen with a debilitating  nine year long political crisis was wearing thin. Tunisian President Saied went on to deliver a message of hope and resolve after being sworn in as the country’s second democratically elected leader by universal suffrage.

Saied, a 61-year-old retired law professor, said he would be a unifying force after a contentious election that resulted in a fractured parliament. He sought to assure Tunisia’s international partners he would preserve “the continuity of the Tunisian state” and remain committed to its international accords and partnerships.

Saied’s rapid rise from an independent candidate with no government experience to winning the highest percentage of votes of any president in the country’s history was bolstered by an unconventional network of support that included Islamists, leftists and young Tunisians. However, the incoming president’s lack of experience and conservative social views raised questions about his policy priorities and diplomatic vision.

Saied drew concern from rights activists when he expressed support for the death penalty and opposition to some individual rights, including equality between the sexes on inheritance rights. There were questions as to whether Tunisia’s foreign policy would shift under Saied after he said normalisation with Israel should be considered “high treason” and received support from radical Islamists who demand an apology from France for “crimes” during the colonial period.

However, in his inaugural address, Saied said it was out of the question to roll back women’s rights and, he noted, he remained committed to Tunisia’s foreign commitments.

“Women badly need to see their rights expanded and strengthened, especially their social and economic rights,” Saied said after shortly after taking the oath of office. “The dignity of a nation stems from the respect of the dignity of its men and women.”

IncomingPresident Saied has promised to ring the changes in Tunisia

Turning to reassure Tunisia’s international partners, Saied stated that “the continuity of Tunisia as a state is safeguarded through its permanent institutions, not through changing individuals.”

“The Tunisian state is committed to respecting all its accords and protocols but what we seek beyond these accords and deals written in the books is the understanding and cooperation between all nations and peoples to serve the interests of all of humanity,” he added.

Saied said Tunisia’s diplomatic priority would be the Maghreb, which he referred to as Tunisia’s “vital space.” This would be followed by Africa, “the Arab brothers,” Tunisia’s” friends” in the European Union and “all other nations and peoples that share the same interests and hopes.”

He reiterated his staunch support for the Palestinians. “Tunisia will remain in the line of defence of all just causes in the world on the top of which comes the issue of our people in Palestine, which will not fall into oblivion with passing time as some have the illusion. That cause is deeply engraved in the consciousness of all Tunisians,” he said.

“All of humanity must come together to put an end to this injustice that has lasted for more than a century. Our stand does not mean we are against the Jews, who we have shielded here and we will continue to protect. We are against colonisation and racism.”

More traditional candidates finished well behind Saied, who gained popularity with an image as an honest, incorruptible candidate committed to stamping out corruption

Saied soared to victory in Tunisia’s presidential runoff October 13 with about 2.8 million votes — 73% of ballots cast — ahead of media executive Nabil Karoui. His vote total was about 1 million more than Tunisia’s first freely elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in office on July 25. However, it was his — and Karoui’s — win in the first round of the vote that shocked the country’s political class. More traditional candidates finished well behind Saied, who gained popularity with an image as an honest, incorruptible candidate committed to stamping out corruption.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who received 7% of the vote in the first round of elections, called Saied’s victory “a plebiscite against corruption.”Saied addressed anti-corruption measures in his inauguration speech October 23, saying “there will be no tolerance even for one cent from the efforts and sweat of the people lost to corruption.” He urged state bodies and public service agencies to stay outside of the political fray. “Everyone is free in his views and beliefs but state bodies and state utilities and other public service agencies must remain neutral and outside any political influences and calculus,” said Saied.

While the constitution provides more executive authority to the head of government, analysts said Saied is likely to play a significant role on the fractured political scene. Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Movement won 52 seats in the 217-member parliament in parliamentary elections but struggled to form a government. Only the Islamic fundamentalist Karama coalition, which brands itself as the “radical wing of Ennahda,” has agreed to join a coalition.

Secularist, liberal and conservative parties, including the Salafist Arrahma party, have either rejected taking part in Ennahda’s government imposed difficult conditions on their participation, threatening instability and the prospect of a hung parliament. Saied, however, remains optimistic about the challenges ahead, saying that, while the “tasks are daunting,” “the willingness of the people will overcome all the difficulties.”

“The president is the symbol of the unity of the country and the people, the grantor of the constitution. I will stay above the divisions and conflicts,” he said.

However, in an apparent warning to political parties in parliament, Saied said Tunisians’ patience with a 9-year political crisis was wearing thin. “Our people aspire for freedom. They also aspire for justice. Injustice in all aspects of life has been going on for a long time and it is time now to meet the expectations of the people in jobs, liberty and dignity,” he observed.

Saied did not say how he would achieve these aims but called on Tunisians to make financial contributions to the state. “Every Tunisian wants to give one day from his salary each month for five years to fill the coffers of the state and end the need of borrowing money from abroad and the problem of the debt that comes from that,” he said.

Saied was clear about his resolve to combat terrorism, saying that “a single bullet fired by one terrorist will be met with an unlimited torrent of bullets.”

Saied’s presidency opens a new chapter in the history of Tunisia, whose previous leaders have been veteran politicians, adding both hopes and concerns about the country’s future.

This edited article by Tunis-based Lamine Ghanim first appeared in The Arab Weekly

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