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Tunisia chooses a president: media magnate or law professor

  • 13 Oct 2019

Tunisians are going to choose the president among a populist tycoon who just got out of jail against a conservative professor in a runoff vote on Sunday.

People watch a televised debate between presidential candidates Kais Saied, left, and Nabil Karoui, on the last day of campaigning before the second round of the presidential elections, in Tunis, Tunisia, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. ( AP )

Tunisians are voting for a new president on Sunday in an unusual contest pitting a populist tycoon who just got out of jail against a conservative professor backed by Ennahda party.

The winner of Sunday's runoff vote will inherit a North African country struggling to overcome corruption, unemployment and sporadic extremist violence — but proud of its still-budding, post-Arab Spring democracy.

The choice for voters between two quirky candidates who have never held political office has made for an unprecedented election.

The top performer in last month's first-round vote was 61-year-old Kais Saied, an enigmatic former constitutional law professor dubbed "Robocop" for his austere bearing.

His challenger is Nabil Karoui, a glib, 56-year-old media mogul who spent most of the campaign behind bars on accusations of money laundering and tax evasion that he calls politically driven.

The only thing the men have in common is their outsider status.

A well-heeled entrepreneur who just started his political party this year, Karoui campaigned on promises to fight the poverty that has hobbled Tunisia since its 2011 pro-democracy uprising unleashed revolts around the Arab world.

Detractors dubbed him "Nabil Macaroni" because his party distributes noodles to the poor. He embraced it: "Nabil Macaroni, and proud to be," Radio Mosaique quoted him as saying Friday.

A self-proclaimed modernist, he said he would seek partnerships with companies such as Microsoft, Google and Netflix to create jobs, and holds up women as pillars of society.

Saied, a conservative independent supported by Ennahdha, has drawn in support with his Mr. Clean image and by promising to rehaul the "pyramid of power" to give poorer provinces and youth more decision-making power.

He sits poker-straight, his blank visage hiding any visible sign of emotion, and speaks in a staccato style — and in literary Arabic, a tongue inaccessible to many in Tunisia's rural interior. Firmly conservative, he opposes equal inheritance rights for daughters and sons, arguing that the hot-button issue is decided by the Quran.

Despite the backing of Ennahdha, which won last week's parliamentary elections, he describes himself as politically neutral.

"I am independent and will remain so until the end of my life," he said

Both men want Tunisia to work to bring peace to neighboring Libya.

For very different reasons, neither Karoui nor Saied has campaigned in a traditional way.

Saied let youthful supporters do much of the campaigning for him while Karoui gave the job to his wife while he tried to get released from prison.

After their televised debate Friday, they cordially shook hands — a gesture Tunisians celebrated as a sign that their democracy is on the right track.

But whoever wins the presidency of Tunisia, tucked between Algeria and Libya, has tough challenges ahead, from trying to bolster a flagging economy, injecting hope into the despairing hinterlands and staying atop a constant counter-terrorism effort.

The new president will also have to work with a fractious parliament, the result of legislative elections on Oct. 6 that gave no party a clear majority.

Tunisia held its presidential election early following the July death in office of President Beji Caid Essebsi.

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