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Kais Saied and Tunisian capital: Intimidation, conspiracy and collaboration

Middle East & North Africa


On July 25, 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied activated Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution. With the decision, the parliament elected in 2019 was frozen. As significantly, the legal space was created for Saied to concentrate increasingly vast powers in his own hands.1 Though many, in the early days, interpreted the President’s interventions as a well-intended response to Tunisia’s dysfunctional politics and distressed economy, time would show his actions to be an anti-democratic coup d’état. With this coup d’état, Saied put an end to the democratic transition process initiated after the 2011 revolution and inaugurated an authoritarian presidential regime. 

On July 28, 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied welcomed Samir Majoul—President of the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts (UTICA), the public-facing organ of the country’s business classes—to the palace in Carthage. The meeting was one amongst many organized by Kais Saied in the aftermath of his coup d’état, the aims of which were to secure the buy-in of key social constituencies as he commenced the transition to a new political regime. Naturally, establishing an understanding with national capital was regarded as especially important by the President: The economy had long been in freefall, the public health crisis precipitated by SARS-CoV-2—whose 4th wave in the summer of 2021 was the deadliest in Tunisia—only accelerating its descent. In the eyes of the public, businesses, like the political classes, had failed to do their part in seeing the country through its troubles.

Tunisian capitalism: A Rentier System

Before considering the relation that the Tunisian President ultimately built with national capital, it would be appropriate to first review the nature of Tunisian capitalism itself.

As sociologist and politician Aziz Krichen explains, Tunisian capitalism is a “rentier system”.2 Straying far from liberal imaginaries and resembling little the competitive market economies in place to one degree or another in the global north, Tunisia’s is an economy in which the state and a handful of families—the latter operating primarily through holding companies and enormous multisector conglomerates—jointly control a large majority of economic activity. Historically speaking, what the families in question had in common was their proximity to political power, Habib Bourguiba first (1956-1987), Zine El Abidine Ben Ali thereafter (1987-2011). The “rent” they derived was not from a natural resource, but from state-sanctioned monopoly positions, special access to credit, and protections against market entrants. For a sense of scale, a World Bank report evaluating the economy consolidated by Ben Ali documented that 21% of private sector profits were captured by some 220 companies, all of them associated with the family of the long-serving autocrat.3 

The how of Tunisia’s oligarchic economy is best appreciated historically. After the failure of the socialist experiment led by Ahmed Ben Salah in the 1960s, President Habib Bourguiba appointed Hedi Nouira as Prime Minister in 1970. For the next decade, Nouira pursued a policy of economic openness, the goal being to create the conditions for the emergence of a national bourgeoisie capable of generating wealth and spearheading development. To encourage and protect the emergence of a new class of entrepreneurs, Nouira set up a system that allowed them to absorb a large share of available banking credit (with little in the way of borrowing conditions) and to enrich themselves through their perches within non-competitive markets.4 Onto the oligarchic foundations thereby laid came Ben Ali’s nepotistic additions. Advocating for more liberalization and a deeper integration into the global economy, Bourguiba’s heir would initiate the privatizations of a number of large state-owned companies. Many were sold to groups owned by families close to the ruling regime, and at sub-market valuations. The political logic informing these transactions was battening down the loyalty of the country’s economic elite while keeping international donors content with the overall direction of things. Cartels, already in existence, thereby accrued ever greater strength while a rhetoric of marketization and state withdrawal sufficed to maintain the support of institutional creditors in Washington and Europe.

Cartelized Banking

The banking sector yielded by Tunisian history is a particularly interesting case in point. As economist Anis Marrkachi explains, despite the presence of twenty-six banks in Tunisia, there is precious little competition in the sector, and for good reason5: the same families hold shares in several different banks. It is therefore not in their interest to compete with each other. What’s more, if less so today for concerns of attracting the ire of Saied’s regulators, the banking sector has also traditionally provided credit for the firms owned by the same families. 

Reconciliation, Cornerstone of Kais Saied’s Project

The fight against corruption, Kais Saied’s springboard

Corruption was undoubtedly one of the main reasons why the Tunisian people rose up in 2011. Ben Ali’s regime was plagued by corruption at all levels, particularly in the business world, where the aforementioned cartels ruled supreme.

As the democratic transition took off, the issue of punishment-cum-reconciliation with businessmen guilty of corruption would become a central topic of debate. The first substantive move was made by the National Constituent Assembly, which was elected in the aftermath of the revolution: In 2013, Tunisia’s new legislature instituted, through the Transitional Justice Act, the Truth and Dignity Instance (IVD) and tasked this independent body with both investigating violations committed by the Tunisian state between 1955 and 2013 and providing reparation to victims.6 Though the IVD’s mandate encompassed cases of corruption and embezzlement, in practice, it never really got close to fulfilling them. This is partially attributable to the political infighting and conflicts of interest which surrounded IVD business from the start. It also stemmed from the resurgence of Tunisia’s old guard: In 2014, the Nidaa Tounes party, a political formation drawn mainly from the forces of the former regime, won both the legislative and Presidential elections. Less keen on exploring the sins of the past, its leader, Beji Caid Essebsi—sworn in as President on December 31st of that year—would move to disrupt IVD investigations while also presenting a bill on reconciliation which, among other things, was to provide for a general amnesty for businessmen accused of corruption. 

In their telling, Nidaa Tounes’ actions were meant to ease the rehabilitation of irreplaceably important businessmen and in so doing, to jump start a flatlining economy.7 Unsurprisingly, however, their bill provoked considerable controversy, arousing indignation among the opposition and intense anger amongst Tunisia’s youth. This anger found expression in the “Menich Msemah” (I won’t forgive) collective, an independent group of young people who mobilized against Essebsi’s law. For two years, this collective led the fight against Nidaa Tounes’ reconciliation agenda. Though unsuccessful in blocking the legislation in the end, Menich Msemah did manage to force Nidaa Tounes’ lawmakers into removing some of the bills more corrosive elements, and to drag the party into unceasing fights over corruption until the end of Essebsi’s tenure: The latter achievement functioned to prevent Essebsi et al from advancing other parts of their (often counter-revolutionary) designs. 

Come the elections of 2019, the activism of Menich Msemah would see to it that the question of corruption remained of highest concern in the public’s eye. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that Kais Saied was elected President in large part because of his stance on corruption. In the second round of the Presidential poll, Saied was pitted against Nabil Karoui, a controversial businessman and TV channel owner embroiled in many cases of corruption. Saied famously vanquished his rival with over 72% of the vote. The result accrued onto Saied both popularity and legitimacy and kept corruption at the forefront of the political discourse.

The failure of the reconciliation bill

After his coup d’état in 2021, one of the cornerstones of Saied’s project was a revision of Essebsi’s reconciliation law. Under the new President’s formulation, an amnesty was still to be made available to businessmen accused of corruption. Unlike his predecessor, however, Saied intended to make forgiveness conditional on relevant principals paying penalties and making social investments in disadvantaged regions. Through such mechanisms, Saied’s rather grandiose plan was to reincorporate Tunisian capital within what he calls “the war for national liberation.” 

The legislative reforms ultimately advanced by Saied’s pen came via a decree-law on criminal reconciliation and resource allocation published in the Journal Officiel de la République Tunisienne in March 2022. As would soon become apparent, the contents of this decree law—and the path forward it delineated—were derived from a report drawn up more than ten years prior by the Commission for the Investigation of Corruption and Embezzlement committed during the Ben Ali period.8 That commission had been set up in the wake of the 2011 revolution and chaired by Abdelfatteh Amor. Its findings identified 460 businessmen involved in corruption and embezzlement, and posited that these persons collectively owed the state 13.5 billion Tunisian dinars (TD). In many-a-public statement, including those explaining the logic of his decree law, Saied would reference Amor’s report, reminding listeners at home that the sums at stake, if recovered, would suffice to lift the country out of its debt penury.9

Expectantly, recovery proved harder in practice than on paper, and Saied’s pledges of an economic rescue powered by his redesigned plans for reconciliation have yet to bear fruit. A year after the President’s decree-law went into effect, Makram Ben Mna, the Saied-appointed President of the Criminal Conciliation Commission, was dismissed from his post for his failures to recover more than a few thousand TD. A scapegoat if there ever was one, Ahmed Souab, a former member of the confiscation commission, explained Ben Mna’s failures by the whole thing—the 13.5 TD billion in particular—being premised on fairy dust. Add that to the fact some of the businessmen cited in Amor’s report were dead by 2023, others bankrupt, others outside the country, and the entire venture looks headed for farce.10 

Faced with the risk of bankruptcy, the conspiracy and authoritarian response

With the country on the brink of economic collapse, Kais Saied’s back is against the wall. His reconciliation project is stillborn, access to international capital markets is closed until a deal with the IMF is reached, and there appear few viable alternatives for replenishing the state coffers. Meanwhile, inflation and shortages continue to push families into desperate conditions. In February 2023, the inflation rate reached 10.4% and remained elevated thereafter, with price increases for critical food stuffs jumping at an even higher clip.  

Despite it all and despite all the evidence showing that structural and conjunctural variables (the pandemic, Russo-Ukraine war, interest rate hikes at the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank) alongside acute policy failures (the wholesale inability to spur higher levels of output) have led Tunisia to its worrying station, the President of the Republic maintains that the country’s difficulties are the result of a conspiracy against him and the state. Shortages and inflation, in his rendering, are the products of speculation—“premeditated acts” meant to disrupt his restoration of the 2011 revolution.11 Brushing aside empirics and rationalism alike, he has invented, like any good populist might, a chimera (in this case, speculators) in order to prop up a divide between a corrupt elite, a pure people, and the people’s champion. To lend this discourse credibility, Saied regularly broadcasts field visits to factories, production sites and storage facilities where he inevitably comes upon speculators hoarding mounds of critical commodities. For example, on August 28, 2021, thirty thousand tons of iron were seized in the Zaghouan region: Kais Saied went for an inspection thereafter, and in a video published on his facebook page, performed the role of people’s guardian. That a few days later it was revealed that the thirty thousand tonnes in question had been legally registered and declared to the authorities would find no place in this theater of the absurd.

As essayist Hatem Nafti explains, conspiracy is at the heart of Kais Saied’s economic vision.12 And at the heart of his favorite conspiracy is, of course, speculation.13 With this in mind, in March 2022, the President would issue a decree-law aimed at combating speculators. The decree provides for penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for those determined guilty. It also imposes odd though impactful restraints on freedom of expression. Per Amnesty International, the President’s decree law criminalizes the dissemination of false information that could influence consumer behavior, and therefore potentially criminalizes anyone wishing to debate this subject.14 With one legislative intervention, then, Saied has not only fed his conspiracy theory concerning the drivers of Tunisia’s shortages, but also prohibited further debate on this issue: An authoritarian and inevitably ineffectual response to an economic problem if there ever was one.

But fighting speculators is not the only way Saied has endeavored to remold the economy in a manner befitting a revolution he deems himself flagbearer of. He has also terrorized Tunisian businessmen, particularly in recent times: As the economy’s troubles deepened in 2023, many of the country’s grand scions—once bothered by Saied’s imposition of travel restrictions—have faced prosecution and even arrest. In February 2023, Kamel Letaief, a well-known and politically influential businessman, was implicated in a plot against state security and brought into custody alongside a handful of leaders of the political opposition. To this day, Letaief, like his alleged co-conspirators, remain in pre-trial detention awaiting trial. At this same juncture, Noureddine Boutar—owner of Mosaïque FM, the country’s most listened-to radio station and a station that maintains an editorial line opposed to the President—was arrested on charges of money laundering and plotting against state security. To Boutar’s good fortune, he was at least released in May on a bail of one million dinars.

Nor did the dragnet close there. Come October, Hassine Doghri, head of La Carte Insurance and UBCI, Tunisia’s tenth largest bank, was hauled before a magistrate court on charges of money laundering and financial corruption. November, meanwhile, saw the arrest of Marouane Mabrouk and Abderrahim Zouari. The former, a former son-in-law of Ben Ali and a man historically thought to be close to French capital, oversees one of Tunisia’s largest business empires alongside his brothers. The latter is a former minister of the ex-dictator. Their arrests took place on the evening of November 7, a nod to history given that Ben Ali had perpetrated his coup on November 7, 1987, a date subsequently made a public holiday (and unmade one after 2011). According to his lawyer of Marouane Mabrouk, the criminal conciliation commission has asked the businessman to pay the rather impossible sum of 800 million TD to secure his freedom.15 An act of desperation, this attempt at extortion shows just how lost for ideas Saied is. Whatever merit there may be in investigating the riches of Tunisia’s oligarchy, for the country to have any hope of escaping its multifaceted economic crisis, it will need an attractive business climate—one that does not scare off the holders of capital from investing. The President shows no such awareness of the state’s abiding dependence on capital. 


After his coup d’état on July 25, 2021, Kais Saied inherited a disastrous economic situation. He came upon a rentier system that enabled a handful of families to enrich themselves over the decades thanks to privileged relationships with power. He came upon regulatory and legal framework designed to protect this elite from competition. He came upon an economy further gutted by the transitional democracy’s failures to resolve questions of growth and distribution. And he came upon a society brought to its knees by SARS-CoV-2, the war in Ukraine, and global inflation. 
By arrogating all powers to himself, Kais Saied had the opportunity to tackle these problems—to radically reform the structure of the Tunisian economy, abolish the privileges of the economic elite and establish a viable economic system. Unfortunately, he adopted a confused, often contradictory strategy leveraging authoritarian methods to either persecute or induce collaboration, all in the hope of putting the economic elite to work. These confused efforts are doomed to failure. Saied’s conspiratorial vision and lack of economic knowledge lead him to make irrational decisions and believe in unrealistic solutions. If already pronounced, the consequences of his leadership for Tunisia look certain to become more dire. 


  1. Le Monde avec AFP, «En Tunisie, le président gèle les activités du Parlement et démet le premier ministre de ses fonctions», Le Monde, July 26 2021. ↩︎
  2. Aziz Krichen, «La gauche et son grand récit, comprendre l’économie rentière », Mots Passants, 2021 ↩︎
  3. World Bank Group, The unfinished revolution: Bringing Opportunity, Good Jobs and Greater Wealth to all Tunisians World Bank, Report: World Bank, May 2014. ↩︎
  4. Thierry Bresillon, «Tunisie, un système rentier», Le Monde Diplomatique, June 2021 ↩︎
  5. Anis Marrakchi, «L’économie de rente en Tunisie : comment en sortir», Tunisian Think Tank, January 2019 ↩︎
  6. Journal officiel de la République Tunisienne, « Loi organique relative à l’instauration de la justice transitionnelle et son organisation », No. 105, December 2013 ↩︎
  7. Le Monde avec AFP, «La Tunisie veut pardonner les faits de corruption», Le Monde, July 15, 2015 ↩︎
  8. Abdelfattah Omar et al, Rapport de la Commission Nationale d’Investigation sur la Corruption et la Malversation, Report : I-Watch, 2011. ↩︎
  9. Staff writer, «Kais Saied propose une amnistie avec les hommes d’affaires corrompus», Businessnews, July 28, 2021 ↩︎
  10. Frida Dahmani, «Ben Ali et la récupération des biens mal acquis», Jeune Afrique, September 12, 2023 ↩︎
  11. Franceinfo avec AFP, «Tunisie : le président Saïed en «guerre» contre les spéculateurs face à une pénurie d’aliments», Franceinfo, March 9, 2022 ↩︎
  12. Hatem Nafti, «Tunisie: Le complotisme, clé de voûte de la gouvernance de Kais Saïed», Fondation Jean Jaurès, November 2023 ↩︎
  13. Journal Officiel de la République Tunisienne, «Décret-loi portant sur la réconciliation pénale et l’affectation des ressources», No.30, 2022 ↩︎
  14. Staff writer, «Tunisie. La nouvelle loi contre la spéculation menace la liberté d’expression», Nouvelles : Amnesty International, March 2022 ↩︎
  15. Thomas Paillaute, «En Tunisie, Abderrahim Zouari et Marwane Mabrouk en garde à vue», Jeune Afrique, November 8, 2023 ↩︎