Saied advocates free speech but his supporters don’t get the message

Some Saied supporters are carrying out a dangerous, confused campaign against all who don’t share their enthusiasm for the new leader.

Tunisia’s new president, Kais Saied, took the oath of office October 23 after scoring a decisive election win that shocked the country’s political establishment.

Since his election, Saied, a conservative academic who has no political experience, has attempted to assure the public of his support for free expression. In his inaugural speech, he vowed to unite the country and restore trust between leaders and the people.

The discourse of many of Saied’s supporters has been very different. Seemingly unmoved by the incoming president’s advocacy for free expression, pro-Saied campaigners formed an electronic army targeting journalists and thinkers who dare criticise the elected leader.

Many of these campaigners seem to believe that any criticism levelled at Saied, who won a stunning 72.7% of the popular vote in the presidential runoff, disrespects “the people’s will.”  In their view, the president should be above reproach, at least for the first months of his 5-year term, and they have taken drastic measures to make that clear.

In a Facebook post October 15, Naoufel Saied, brother of the new president, wrote: “From now on, any fake news against Kais Saied would be considered as an offence against Tunisia and its people.” He did not elaborate but what he means by “fake news” could be understood as news reporting that he and other supporters of the new president do not like.

The campaign against Saied’s critics reached its height the day of the runoff, when two female journalists for Tunisian TV channel Elhiwar Ettounsi, which has been critical of Saied, were assaulted while reporting on a Saied rally after exit polls indicated he had won. The journalists and a colleague were berated by the crowd and their cameraman was prevented from recording the event.

The violent saga did not end there. Saied supporters initiated a social media campaign against four leading media figures known to be critical of the new president’s views.

Then a Saied supporter put out an even more shocking Facebook post: he was ready “to bomb the offices of Elhiwar Ettounsi and all similar TV channels to protect the future of his children.” While that man later said he was not serious about the threat, the post was widely shared and defended by some of Saied’s supporters who claimed the media was propagating “hate speech” and attempting to “undermine the legitimacy” of the new president.

Among those calling for Elhiwar Ettounsi’s closure was Tunisian Judge Hammadi Rahmani, who wrote on Facebook that the channel was guilty of “the worst of verbal violence” and of “promoting a climate that will lead to social tension and political violence, which may eventually lead to crimes.”

Such accusations are baseless. Saied’s critics are not engaging in “violence.” They are being targeted because they dare to break with the predominant populist discourse.

This reveals something fundamentally hypocritical about a portion of the pro-Saied movement. By attempting to silence critics of the president, those followers are going against the very “revolutionary” principles they claim to represent. Their bigotry and, often, machismo reveal a deep sense of intolerance that should be cause for concern for all who believe in individual rights.

Saied himself, who once advocated for the death penalty and spoke against equal rights between the sexes on inheritance, has changed his tune. In his swearing-in ceremony, Saied said that Tunisia would not go backward on women’s rights and said Tunisians are “free in their beliefs and choices.”

Saied’s supporters do not seem to have received the message. They carry on their dangerous, confused campaign against all who don’t share their enthusiasm for the new leader.

Do Saied supporters who try to silence his critics not understand that democracy does not mean the public must remain quiet after election results? That free speech — especially speech critical of elected leaders — is a core democratic value and that those who speak out against the popular political norms are part of the Tunisian public and deserve to have their voices heard?

Respecting the democratic process is important. This was done when Saied took the oath of office and assumed the powers of the presidency, as he was entitled to, but the president is not above criticism, nor are any of his supporters.

Additionally, we must not think of “Tunisian people” as monolithic, sharing the same belief systems, political views or ambitions. One of Tunisia’s greatest strengths is that it contains people of all sorts of backgrounds and belief systems who come together under one flag and have a shared sense of belonging.

All we can hope for now, after another peaceful transfer of power, is that the new president allows free expression in all its forms and succeeds in bringing Tunisians together as the country proceeds in its democratic transition.

A good first sign in that direction came on Saied’s first day in office when social media pages of the presidency unblocked the accounts of many writers and activists.

Whether we agree with the new president or not, we hope that his presidency meets the expectations of millions of Tunisians who strive for dignity, liberty and a society that is free of violence, poverty and instability.

Iman Zayat is the Managing Editor of The Arab Weekly, where this article was originally published.