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The Regime of Kais Saied: Populist Authoritarianism by Default

Middle East & North Africa

On July 25th 2021, President Kaïs Saïed assumed full control of the Tunisian state. Since then, he has methodically unraveled the institutional architecture put in place after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. His regime is also in the process of rolling back the advances in rights and freedoms which the 2010-2011 revolution had managed to secure. Unlike other authoritarian formations, moreover, it is doing so without offering prosperity in exchange for restraints on liberty. Quite the opposite, in fact: the daily lives of Tunisians have gotten considerably worse under Saïed, marred by repeated shortages of essential goods and high inflation. 

Despite it all, Saïed remains popular, and his re-election in 2024, should a Presidential poll be held, looks to be a virtual certainly. Contrarily, Saïed’s institutional project is as yet light on popular support, as revealed by any number of intermediary consultations. How can we understand this paradox? 

Saied in the Populist Moment

Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde defines populism as “a thin ideology that sees society as divided into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, the pure people and the corrupt elite, and asserts that politics should be the expression of the general will of the people.”1 The initial record of Kaïs Saïed, whose 2019 campaign slogan was, after all, “the people want” (الشعب يريد), revealed him to be a practitioner of this ideology par excellence. 

In the second round of 2019’s Presidential elections, Saïed faced off against Nabil Karoui, a media magnate who had embedded within circles of power before and after the revolution (and spent most of the campaign season in prison after being arrested on financial corruption charges). For Saïed, there could have been no easier foil. An outsider amongst the elite of the post-revolutionary decade, the one-time constitutional law professor had, by this stage, established himself as a fierce defender of the public interest and critic of the stuttering political transition. Essential to his emergence in the public consciousness was the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi in 2013. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Saied presented himself before journalists outside the hospital where Brahmi’s body was taken, where he declared “Let them all go, majority and opposition! Let them declare that they have all failed! Today we see the result of their failure!” The sequence quickly went viral. Thereafter, having laid his hand on the pulse of a demos disenchanted by the revolution’s political beneficiaries, Saïed found his voice as a trusted, impartial explainer of the days’ events. And the days’ events were inviting to a commentator of his kind. The political parties which governed following Ben Ali’s exit proved consistently feckless—lacking in vision, short on operational capacity, and disconnected from the citizenry (Powers 2023).2 Corruption, once the preserve of the Trabelsi clan, also “democratized”, enveloping as it did a wide swath of elected officialdom. 

In this context, that Saïed, running what he called an “explanatory” rather than electoral campaign (حملة تفسيرية), wound up trouncing Karoui in 2019 with a full 72% vote share was hardly a surprise. That he could later capitalize on a host of other contingent conditions to buttress the powers of the Presidency—the deep divisions evinced by the parliament elected in 2019; the parliamentary majority’s hostility toward Tunisia’s singularly popular President; and the government’s mismanagement of the response to SARS-CoV-2—was equally foreseeable. 

As it played out, Saïed would propose to the public that the entire political elite be done away with in the rather tactile language of a coup d’etat. The public by and large agreed and over the months that followed, he would proceed to dissolve the old elite’s locus of power, the Assembly of People’s Representatives (ARP). The man that Tunisian researcher Mohamed Sahbi Khalfaoui, co-author of 2020’s “La tentation populiste”, names not a populist but a “manual of populism”, thereby acquired unchecked power over the Tunisian state.3 

The Origins of Saiedisme

In his report for Noria Research, “Kais Saied Today, What Tomorrow?”, Colin Powers classifies Kaïs Saïed’s populism as right-wing iteration, deeming it a “shoddy” expression of the kind of political project that has been advanced by conservative stalwarts such as ViKtor Orbán (Hungary) and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey). If we are in favor with the general contours of the argument, we must nevertheless stress that the ideological edifice for Saied’s initiative was built upon leftist references, specifically, ideas drawn from councilism and contemporary progressive populist movements in the west and South America. 

To best discern how the contradictions of conservative and leftist contents came to be contained in Saiedisme, it is necessary to return to the first weeks of the Tunisian revolution. When Ben Ali left Tunisia on January 14, 2011, the regime he had constructed over the course of nearly thirty years lost its head, though not its body. This could be observed in the actions undertaken by the authorities in the immediate aftermath of Ben Ali’s departure. In broad strokes, these actions made motions toward incorporating elements of the demands being voiced on the street while ultimately endeavoring to preserve the legal foundations of the existing state form. Mindful of those foundations, Ben Ali would officially be dismissed from office under article 57 of the 1959 Constitution. Thereafter, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, already in government at the time of the revolution, would attempt to reshuffle the cabinet in order to calm popular energies and co-opt fractions of the opposition. 

The first such reshuffle occurred on January 17th. The second, announced on January 28th, was prompted by the Kasbah 1 sit-in, whose main demand was the departure of all ministers connected to the country’s long-ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique (RCD). Although Ghannouchi agreed to the Kasbah 1’s demand and personally resigned from his post with the RCD, his maneuvers failed to bring the political crisis to an end. In February, a second sit-in, Kasbah 2, was convened. Participating on this occasion was a broad cross-section of the political spectrum (Islamists, radical leftists, certain democratic parties such as the Ettakattol social democrats) as well as the UGTT. In the final instance, this sit-in yielded a body called the National Council for the Protection of the Revolution (CNPR). 

Seeing the writing on the wall after the CNPR’s emergence, the old guard gave up on piecemeal reform and instead set up what became known as the High Authority for the Achievement of the Revolution’s Objectives, Political Reform and Democratic Transition (HIROR), commonly referred to as the Ben Achour Authority. The legal framework for the HIROR was finalized a few days before the end of the Kasbah 2 sit-in. Upon its establishment, Mohamed Ghannouchi resigned from his post as Prime Minister and was replaced by Béji Caïd Essebsi. In structure, the HIROR brought together the CNPR with a committee of experts and societal representatives. In function, it was at once a proto-parliament and a consultative body tasked with proposing an overhaul of laws and institutions to bring them into line with international democratic standards. In composition, the HIROR consisted of 155 members comprised of the leaders of the partisan opposition, “national personalities”, and representatives of civil society, the regions, and of the families of the revolution’s martyrs and wounded. 

Essebsi, long a devotee to and luminary of the RCD’s single party rule, made his dissatisfaction with the HIROR known from the start. For altogether different reasons, so did a host of other principals. Most relevant here was a leftwing faction from the Kasbah 2 sit-ins, who saw the absorption of the CNPR by “the system” as a betrayal. This faction was led by Ridha Chiheb Mekki, known as Lénine, and Sonia Charbt. It organized its efforts through the “Forces de la Tunisie libre” (FTL). Heavily influenced by Chavismo and Spain’s Indignant movement (and later, by Spain’s Podemos and Italy’s Five Star movement), the FTL was very active on social networks. Under Ridha Lénine’s direction, it also produced economic analyses and political treatises, the most notable of which were published by the secular-left magazine Al hiwar al moutamedden (Civilized Dialogue). Covering a wide terrain, many of these outputs furnished what amounted to an interpretation of the revolution itself. Others offered a roadmap for how the revolution ought to be institutionalized. 

Overseeing the FTL’s efforts when it came to the second of these files was Kaïs Saïed. Never party to the opposition during Ben Ali’s long tenure and never known as an advocate for liberal democracy—while not of the government itself, Saïed’s academic work had frequently been in service of the RCD party-state—Saïed’s personal history naturally informed how he engaged the pressing questions of institutionalization, both during the Kashbah-1 and 2 sit-ins and after. As constitutional issues became increasingly central to the public debate, Saïed’s status as an academic, use of classical Arabic, and particular diction powered an unlikely rise to prominence. A regular guest on the 8pm news on national television—by far the most watched program in the country—he quickly became a trusted analyst and object of curiosity for communities not traditionally passionate about public affairs.

Across the early years of the transition, the FTL, Saïed included, criss-crossed Tunisia, devoting much of their energies to meeting people on the margins: Unlike the emergent political elite, Lenine, Saïed et al spent considerable time in working-class neighborhoods deserted by the parties outside of election season. They also immersed themselves amongst disaffected young people and social movements not controlled by the UGTT. As they toured, Saïed’s reputation for probity and his singular communication style made him a de facto spokesman. Before a diversity of audiences, it was he who laid out an institutional vision and plans for a new social pact. 

As intimated, in substance, the alternative Saïed and the FTL put forth was one in keeping with Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution and recent western mobilizations like Occupy Wall Street. Indeed, for historian Adnen Mansar, President of the Centre d’études stratégiques sur le Maghreb arabe (CESMA), the interventions of Saied and the FTL need be located within Tunisia’s Patriotes démocrates (WATAD), an ideological current which rejected the post-2011 democratic transition on the grounds of its liberal contents—in the economic and political sense of the term.4 That the FTL made this case while the country fell into the grip of an Islamist/secularist divide—one that became all the more alienating when leaders of the two rivaling poles formed an alliance in the middle of the 2010s—only enhanced the persuasiveness of its messaging. 

Upon deciding to contest for the office of the Presidency, Saïed lent the FTL’s critique of Tunisia’s democratic transition—and of representative democracy more generally—greater precision, and in so doing, gave an indication of what, exactly, his alternative institutional arrangement might imply. In a wide-ranging interview published in the magazine Al Charaa Al Magharibi, the legal scholar posited that representative democracy was bound for obsolescence, referencing the Gilets jaunes crisis in France as evidence. The reason for this trajectory, in his estimations, was that representative institutions had become obstructions to the people in expressing their will. In Tunisia, the prerogatives granted to the President of the Republic by the 2014 Constitution made it impossible to break the hold of representative bodies, of course. Revising the constitution through the procedures it provided—namely, parliamentary action—did not appear to be in Saied’s plans either, as his movement did not present any candidates for the parliamentary elections held in October 2019. Whatever the positive contents of Saïed’s desired alternative might be, then, his exchange in Al Charaa Al Magharibi contained a warning for a radical rupture to come.

A Populist Authoritarian

The rupture arrived in the summer of 2021. Thereafter, Saïed set about furnishing his long-discussed alternative to representative democracy.  

The first step in this process was the dismantling or weakening of all checks, balances and intermediary bodies. After freezing and then dissolving the Assembly of People’s Representatives, Saïed went after the Supreme Council of the Judiciary and the Electoral Commission, ultimately replacing them with bodies appointed directly or indirectly by him. In June 2022, he also granted the Presidency the right to dismiss any magistrate on the strength of a simple police report. As the Ministry of Interior was under the direct control of the executive, this granted Saïed full discretionary power. Leveraging such powers, he would dismiss fifty-seven judges. (Though a ruling from the administrative courts invalidated fifty of these dismissals, the highest ranks of the judiciary, under the command of the Presidency once again, refused to enact the decision). Upon the ratification of the 2022 constitution—a text written without consultation and submitted to a referendum which but a fraction of the population participated in— Saïed consolidated his power further by establishing a hyper-presidential system. This Presidential system not only vastly diminishes the powers assigned to what would become a bicameral Parliament, but extricates the Head of State (i.e. the Presidency) from any meaningful system of oversight or accountability.

The second step in Saïed’s process was imposing significant limits on public dissent. Taking advantage of the fiat powers through which he governed between September 22, 2021 and the end of March 2023, Saïed imposed, by decree-laws not subject to appeal, a number of liberticidal pieces of legislation. The most infamous of these was decree-law 2022-54. Under the guise of combating fake news, the law established penalties of up to ten years in prison for those disseminating content deemed offensive to the authorities. In practice, this law would be used to prosecute political opponents and critical citizens. 

The third and last step of Saïed’s in building his alternative was discursive, an effort in constructing his person as the singular organ of the popular will and agent of salvation. Compelled by a messianic vocation, the President would, on the one hand, routinely equate criticism of the regime with treason: In public speeches and remarks, Saïed regularly deems those opposing his project as traitors and criminals—without ever identifying the principals in question by name. On the other, Saïed presented his project as part of a “war of national liberation”, as an effort to “save Africa and humanity” and “change the course of history”.  

Despite the repressiveness of his regime and the absurdity of his rhetoric, two-plus years after his coup d’etat, there’s every reason to believe that Saïed can hold on to power in Tunisia for some time to come. More immediately, he is almost a guarantee to win the next presidential election, and without needing to resort to stuffing the ballot boxes. How can this be possible?  

Conspiracy as a mode of government

Like many contemporary populist leaders—the most obvious examples of which include Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro—Kaïs Saïed deftly exploits conspiratorial thinking in advancing his cause. More than that, it could even be said that he has made conspiracy into a central tenet of governance. 

From the earliest hours of the coup executed on July 25, 2021, Saïed would systematically mobilize conspiracy theories to explain dysfunction and rationalize failure. On the economic front, while his ministers cite structural and material reasons for ongoing difficulties (the global financial crisis of2007-2009, terrorist attacks, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, etc.), the President places unnamed speculators and smugglers at the heart of the country’s troubles. In his rendering, these villains—who do, as a matter of fact, exist, albeit without exerting the grand consequence Saïed assigns—are not driven by greed so much as the desire to provoke a social crisis so as to bring down the regime. More recently, Israel’s war in Gaza has afforded the Tunisian president the opportunity to position ethereal “Zionist networks” amongst these enemies. Saïed has also turned to conspiracy to score political points through attacks on the most vulnerable, namely, black migrants: In a local variation of Great Replacement theory, he contends that foreign powers, working with black supremacists, are endeavoring to “replace” Arab-Muslim populations. 

Widening the focus, it becomes apparent that for Saïed, conspiracy provides a tool for both reassuring and frightening the Tunisian people. In the context of the fever dreams presented, Tunisia would be a rich country if only it could stop the plundering of nebulous local and foreign parties—and there is but one man for the job: Kaïs Saïed. In the endless multiplication of scapegoats and pledges toward waging a war on enemies “from within and without”, the President plays on the desperation of the millions pushed into poverty while reinforcing the notion that Carthage is some “besieged citadel.” This baroque combination, demanding that all unite around the fearless sovereign, underpins Saïed’s power to no small degree. 

The return of fear

The 2011 revolution broke down the wall of fear which had prevailed in Tunisia for the better part of the post-independence era. As events since July 25th 2021 have shown, however, the gains realized were always tenuous. 

A decisive factor in fear’s return to Tunisia was the aforementioned decree-law 2022-54. As soon as it was introduced, the authorities began targeting opponents and voices critical of the regime; all the while, supporters of the government were able to continue slanderous attacks with impunity. 

The results of these actions have been profound. Several personalities who were very active during the post-revolutionary decade have decided to withdraw from public life. Self-censorship is at work not only among ordinary citizens, but also among journalists, some of whom have been prosecuted under the decree-law: For a sense for journalists’ acute vulnerability, consider that between 2021 and 2023, Tunisia dropped 49 places in the Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) ranking for freedom of expression (and from first to fourth place in the Arab world). Fear is running rampant within the judiciary as well, where Saïed’s machinations have cowed magistrates into obedience. And since February 2023, a chill has been cast across the ranks of the political opposition, too. This chill blows from a number of sources, the most significant of which is the regime’s charging of dissidents with “plotting against state security.” To date, eight individuals have been arrested on this spurious basis, six remain in detention, and all are threatened by lengthy prison sentences. Indeed, despite the judicial authorities’ silence and the defendants’ lawyers having revealed the emptiness of the relevant case files, the prospects of any principal receiving a fair trial seem slim, particularly with Saïed publicly threatening prosecutors that they will be considered “accomplices” should they “take the liberty of clearing” the charges being leveled. 

In total, some forty political leaders are today in detention. This includes almost the entirety of Ennahda’s leadership. It also includes the leader of the Parti Destourien Libre, Abir Moussi (PDL, neo-benalist): Arrested when she refused to comply with an administrative procedure, Moussi currently faces a maximum penalty of death, should she be convicted on all counts. Even some former members of Saïed’s entourage, such as Nadia Akacha, a one-time advisor of unsurpassed influence, have been prosecuted or sentenced in absentia. 

In conjunction with his leveraging of fear, Saïed’s weaponization of the law to close down spaces for political contention buttresses his control considerably. With many political figures behind bars, others scared to speak out, and political parties and civil society organizations in the opposition still divided on how to resist Saïed’s project, mobilizing a challenge to Carthage has become an exceedingly difficult undertaking. 

Support from the Deep State and international partners

The last variable playing into the firmness of Saïed’s grip on power is the support he retains both from the Tunisian administrative state and key international partners. 

Concerning the former, one need begin with the fact that since the reforms of the mid-19th century—specifically, the Fundamental Pact of 1857 and the Constitution of 1861—Tunisia has had a more or less stable administrative state: The sovereign might shift from Beys to colonial administrations to Bourguiba and Ben Ali, but the hierarchical logic and unified chain of command upon which the state is organized remains fixed. 

For the persons and interests populating the Tunisian state, the epoch of the democratic transition proved an unwelcoming experience. Parliamentarism, coalition governance, the inexperience of the political class, and the rise in public expectations all came to disturb the functioning of the administrative machine, including its coercive components. The intensity and extensity of frustration which resulted within the state was palpable. This being the case, when Kaïs Saïed executed his coup d’etat, recentralized authority, and freed the bureaucracy from public oversight mechanisms, his actions were greeted by quiet though undeniable support: As he consolidated a new autocracy, the civil service witnessed few resignations, especially at the senior level. And in his bid to do away with parties, Kaïs Saïed looks to be in the process of setting up a new form of party-state, one in which the senior administration is to play a key part. 

As pertains to international partners, for different reasons, a host of actors have furnished Saied with a diversity of supports. If the Gulf has mostly kept its distance, Tunisia’s western neighbor, Algeria, has mobilized significant financial aid for Saïed, pleased to see him correct the democratic “anomaly” of 2011-2021: It was only a few days after the July 25th coup that Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune remarked that Saïed’s intervention had been necessary due the democratic regime being “incompatible with Third World structures”. A few reprimands came from western governments, it should be said, though throughout, American aid continued to flow to the Tunisian military. The European Commission, France and Italy, focused as ever upon the prospect of migration, have, meanwhile, consistently endeavored to stabilize Saïed’s rule—and to deputize him as the guardian of Europe’s southern border. That they have done so amidst the Tunisian state’s inhumane treatment of sub-Saharan Africans offers as clear testimony as any to Europe’s true priorities.


The political regime of Kaïs Saïed is the fruit of disappointments yielded by the post-2011 transition and a strong counter-revolutionary movement. For all the reasons discussed in this paper, though recent votes and referenda may show little public engagement with Saïed’s institutional project, the President himself remains relatively popular, and his grip on power firm. 

Making matters worse, Israel’s ongoing war on the Gaza Strip looks likely to boost Saïed’s fortunes further. This is because in acquiescing to, if not actively endorsing, human rights violations in Gaza, western countries and organizations are indirectly fuelling resentment against pro-democracy civil society in Tunisia, to whom they have traditionally extended support. Easing the task for those seeking to close the liberal parenthesis opened by the fall of Ben Ali once and for all, this is a gravely worrisome development for all those hoping Tunisia might still have a bright political future. 


  1. Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, Brève introduction au populisme, Editions de l’Aube (Paris: 2018): 19 ↩︎
  2. Colin Powers, “Kais Saied Today, What Tomorrow? Tunisia in the Age of Hyperpolitics”, Report: Noria Research (October 2023). ↩︎
  3. Hamadi Redissi, Hafedh Chekir, Mahdi Elleuch & Sahbi Khalfaoui, La tentation populiste: Les elections de 2019 en Tunisie, Cérès éditions (Tunis: 2020). ↩︎
  4. Adnen Mansar, Les années d’argile. de la démocratie boiteuse au despotisme populiste, Sotumedia (Tunis: 2023). ↩︎