Nabil Karoui, Tunisian businessman and owner of the TV channel Nessma, has been in prison since August 23rd. He is one of the favorites in the country’s presidential elections, and was arrested the same day that electoral and media authorities announced that they were banning the Nessma station from reporting on the campaigns. This was done under the reasoning that Nessma was “illegally” broadcasting without the proper licenses. Surveys by Tunisian polling agency Sigma Conseil have consistently put Karoui in the lead, with his detention only adding to his popularity.
Nabil Karoui, is pro-business and pro-reforms. His electoral program focuses on the eradication of poverty and the fight against social difficulties that afflict Tunisian citizens. His platform seeks to address issues such as health and social rights (such as the right to water) as national security affairs. But this platform has come to a halt with Karoui’s convenient arrest—supposedly for money laundering. Reminiscent of Nelson Mandela, Karoui began today an indefinite hunger strike. His wife has taken over the campaign.
There is increased concern in Tunisia that the detention of Karoui will affect his participation in the rest of the electoral process. The arrest is also seen by many as unfair, and a throwback to past times—a blind spot in Tunisia’s democracy.
If Tunisia and its authorities proclaim to be a functioning democracy, then they need to play by democratic rules. Karoui’s detention just one week before the start of a campaign, based on an investigation that has been going on since 2017, is all too convenient. The courts have been mum on the subject, not publishing its reasonings for the detention.
Many speculate that this electoral process is being influenced by considerations other than strict compliance with the rule of law. The Carter Center, while praising the smooth transition after the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi, has rightly called for increased transparency in this whole process. The observation mission of the European Union has deplored the case of Nabil Karoui, and called for more efforts to allow the various candidates in the next elections to have the same opportunities during the election campaign.
A birds-eye view doesn’t lend itself to optimism of the situation. A pro-business, pro-reform candidate who has captivated the public’s eye has been detained by authorities at a timely moment for those currently in charge. It looks like a rushed attempt for the powers-that-be to maintain the current political status quo. Moreover, there may have been other attempts: prior to President Essebsi’s passing, parliament passed amendments that appeared to personally target Karoui by effectively barring owners of media outlets from running for offices. The laws never took effect because the president didn’t promulgate them before passing away.
Karoui’s most important political rivals are important players in Tunisia’s political scene: the current Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, current Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, ex-President Moncef Marzouki, and Abdelfattah Mourou, vice president of the Islamist party Ennahda. According to rumors Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi is trying to convince candidates Marzouki, Makhlouf and Jebali to withdraw from the elections in favor of Mourou, seemingly pessimistic about its candidate’s chance to get to the second round.
Karoui, meanwhile, is a wild card, and seen by the wealthy, secular political elite whom Karoui once backed as a threat. He has captured public attention, and if Karoui wins the election but is barred from office due to his detainment, there could be a crisis.
This election therefore looks to be a veritable political turning point in Tunisia, with the detention of Karoui right at the center. With Tunisia the sole democracy to remain from the Arab Spring, all eyes are turned to the integrity of this election.
Public opinion in Tunisia has become increasingly skeptical of politicians and political parties, with speculation that younger voters will seek to vote out what they see as a corrupt and inefficient status quo. Given the disadvantaged situation of Karoui, a political outsider, those opinions might be confirmed.
Public opinion and a rise in populist tendencies, skeptical of the current political status quo, has led to large shifts—or, at the very least, the potential of them—in several recent elections. One only needs to look at the election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency to see how disillusioned voters can bring about immense political change. Future elections in other countries will also face this, such as Marine Le Pen’s resurgent popularity in France, should she choose to run for election.
Regardless of the outcome, the key is the process. Truly functioning democratic elections are defined by their transparency, inclusivity, and integrity. Tunisian authorities would do well to remember this if they are to prove to onlookers that the voice of the people, eight years after the Arab Spring, is here to stay.
Sasha Toperich is senior executive vice president of the Transatlantic Leadership Network. From 2013 to 2018, he was a senior fellow and director of the Mediterranean Basin, Middle East and Gulf initiative at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.
Jonathan Roberts, project manager at the Transatlantic Leadership Network, also contributed to the research and writing of this article.