TUNIS, TUNISIA (AP) — Tunisians are voting for president Sunday in an unusual contest pitting a populist tycoon who just got out of jail against a conservative professor backed by resurgent Islamists.
The winner of Sunday’s runoff vote will inherit a North African country struggling to create jobs, revive tourism and overcome sporadic extremist violence — but proud of its still-budding, post-Arab Spring democracy .
Voters lined up even before polls opened in the capital, Tunis, choosing between two candidates who have never held political office.
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 . Both rose to the runoff on the disenchantment of Tunisians, particularly young people and the poor, who feel the governing class hasn’t fulfilled the promises of the 2011 “jasmine revolution” that unleashed revolts around the Arab world.
“I just hope that everything that will happen in the next five years will be better for Tunisia,” said voter Elfi Zaouarda, casting a ballot in Tunis.
Saied is seen as the slight favorite, thanks to an enthusiastic youth campaign machine that cheers him on Twitter and backing from the No. 1 and No. 3 parties in the new parliament: the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha and the Al Karama Coalition, led by a radical Islamist lawyer.
More than 100,000 police, soldiers and security forces are guarding the 15,000 polling stations, notably on the borders with Libya and Algeria, and thousands of local and foreign observers are monitoring the vote.
Polling agencies are expected to release projections after voting stations close, and official results are expected Monday or Tuesday.
A well-heeled entrepreneur who just started his political party this year, Karoui campaigned on promises to fight poverty. Detractors dubbed him “Nabil Macaroni” because his party distributes the noodles to the poor.
He embraced it: “Nabil Macaroni, and proud to be,” Radio Mosaique quoted him as saying Friday.
During an unprecedented TV debate, Karoui promised to combat extremist violence by “attacking at its roots” and raising economic prospects in struggling provinces that are fertile recruiting grounds for the Islamic State group and other extremists.
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, has drawn in support with his Mr. Clean image and by promising to overhaul 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, the Muslim holy book.
Despite the backing of Ennahdha, 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 jail.
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 has tough challenges ahead leading this country of 11 million people. In addition to economic and security troubles, Tunisia is both a source of migrants trying to reach Europe and a transit country for migrant trafficking from elsewhere in Africa.
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.
This is only Tunisia’s second democratic presidential election, and is being held early following the July death in office of President Beji Caid Essebsi.
Elaine Ganley in Paris and Nadine Achoui-Lesage in Tunis contributed.