"Benefactor" for some, "thug" for others. Television mogul Nabil Karoui, 56, gray-haired and man-in-a-hurry, tears up Tunisia to the point that his appearance in the leading duo of the first round of the presidential election, Sunday, September 15, is heavy with storms policies. With a score of 15%, according to official results that count on the counting of 27% of the ballots, Nabil Karoui would be on the way to succeed his bet: that of qualifying for the second round without having campaigned. Incarcerated in a prison near Tunis, he had to let his family, including his wife Salwa Smaoui, beat the stands in his place.Article reserved for our subscribers Read also Salwa Smaoui, the Tunisian woman who beats the countryside instead of her husband
Arrested on August 23 at a highway toll in the context of a case of " tax evasion " and " money laundering ", a file revealed in 2016, but rerun of the drawers on the eve of the campaign, Nabil Karoui will he again be prevented from competing for the second round? Or will a timely liberation put an end to a baroque situation, unprecedented in the annals of the young Tunisian democracy?
Whatever his political and judicial future, Mr. Karoui is already the symptom of a Tunisian transition disoriented. The poison of the electorate's disaffection with a political class that has disappointed the socio-economic expectations of the 2011 revolution has been more devastating than anticipated.
Fight against poverty
Draped in the banner of the "fight against poverty" , Mr. Karoui, who has embarked since 2016 in charity activities carefully staged on the screens of his channel Nessma TV, has seduced a "Tunisia of bottom " surviving in social precariousness. But in front of him stands another fringe of public opinion, alarmed by his career as a businessman with sulphurous and controversial practices. " Mafious ", even criticize its detractors who see it as a " mortal danger for the State ".Read also In Tunisia, where will the power of the future president stop?
Born in 1963 in Bizerte, north-west of Tunis, Mr. Karoui grew up in a modest family without being poor. His father was a manager in a private marble company and his mother, of Algerian origin, a housewife. Student not very brilliant - he will miss his baccalaureate several times - Nabil Karoui leaves to begin studies of commerce in Marseilles. In 1992, after the creation of Canal +'s Africa-Middle East subsidiary, he joined Canal + Horizon in Tunisia as commercial director and, four years later, launched his own communications company alongside his brother Ghazi. Karoui & Karoui is his name, pierces the Algerian and Moroccan markets in addition to the Tunisian market. Advertising campaigns on a mobile phone booming there are very lucrative.
With his success, Nabil Karoui decided to embark on television, sector monopolized by the state. In 2007, he created the TV channel Nessma TV with the consent of then dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, to whom Nabil Karoui must swear allegiance - condition of the presidential go-ahead - by publicly rewarding him with a " Ben Ali is our father "remembered.
"Thirst for recognition"
The revolution of 2011 opens new horizons to this Tunisian Rastignac inhabited by a fierce " thirst for recognition ", according to the word of one of his acquaintances. Nabil Karoui retained bitter narcissistic wounds when family members saw him at the beginning of his career, he who did not inherit any network.
In the aftermath of the fall of Ben Ali, Nabil Karoui understands that the democratic revolution is conjugated with the cathodic revolution and Nessma becomes from then on the noisy and uncomplicated instrument of its ambitions. Did he "fabricate" Beji Caid Essebsi, the future head of state, as his entourage suggests? The fact is that Mr. Essebsi, former regime clerk of Ben Ali and Bourguiba, forgotten by the public, is suddenly exhumed from his retirement by the grace of an interview solicited by Nessma, who puts him in orbit for the position of first minister of a transitional government. The new political life of Mr. Essebsi, improbable "ghost", dates from this television anointing of Nessma.Read also Tunisian presidential election: Kaïs Saïed, hyper-conservative lawyer, tops the first round
In October 2011, Nabil Karoui became the hero of an episode that was both painful and founder for his legendary - carefully staged - icon of freedom of expression. After the broadcast of Marjane Satrapi Persepolis's film, where God is portrayed as an old man with a white beard - a representation of the divinity proscribed in Islam - angry Salafists march through the streets of Tunis to the cries of " To death Karoui! Before attacking his home and offices. A few days before the legislative elections of October 23, that the Islamist party Ennahda will win, the bottom of the air is electric in Tunisia and Mr. Nabil Karoui, as well as two other people involved in the dissemination of Persepolis , are prosecuted for " undermining the values of the sacred ". They are finally condemned only to a modest financial penalty. But this "Persepolis trial" of spring 2012 has accelerated the crystallization of fierce opposition within Tunisian society between two currents of opinion: "Islamist" versus "modernist". Mr. Karoui comes out grown up in the eyes of a fringe of "modernists". Others are more skeptical, recalling that he was still flatly "excused" in front of the prosecutor.
"Visitor of the evening"
After setting his sights on Mr. Essebsi, Nabil Karoui helps the latter to set up his political party. Nidaa Tounès ("the call of Tunisia") was created in April 2012 during meetings held in the premises of Nessma TV. Officially, the plan is to unite the "modernist" camp in a resistance to the rise of Islamism. In fact, dealings with Ennahda for a future power sharing are slowly taking shape. Mr. Karoui is one of the architects of the rapprochement between Mr. Essebsi and Rached Ghannouchi, the boss of Ennahda. A meeting between the two men in Paris in the summer of 2013 will lay the groundwork for the election of Essebsi as President of the Republic in late 2014 and the government coalition between Nidaa Tounès and Ennahda sealed in early 2015.
Karoui's role in such a rapprochement is logical. He never shared the irreducible anti-Islamism of some fringes of the "modernist" camp. He knows how to compose, sensitive to the relations of forces and his interests in business, in Tunisia as in the neighboring Libya, where he does not hesitate to take language with figures of Islamism in Tripolitania.Read also Presidential elections in Tunisia: a fragmentation of the electoral scene fraught with instability
In 2016, the controversy sharpens around Karoui's business practices when a report by I-Watch, the Tunisian branch of Transparency International, implicates him for " tax evasion " and " money laundering " . The head of government Youssef Chahed, who launches in 2017 an anti-corruption campaign, however, is careful not to attack Karoui. This one is protected by Mr. Essebsi from the heart of the Carthage Palace, of which he is a regular " evening visitor ", according to a connoisseur of the alleys of power. In addition, since the death of his son Khalil, killed in a car accident in the summer of 2016, Nabil Karoui seems to take other routes, those of charity work in the poor villages of inner Tunisia. " Helping the poor has helped to ease the pain of our son's disappearance ," says Salwa Smaoui, Nabil Karoui's wife.
As an "icebreaker"
But Mr. Karoui is not reduced to an Abbot Pierre in Tunisian fashion. He soon has other ambitions, reinforced by the growing popularity of his outrageously donated donation campaigns.
" Tunisia today is the Titanic," he told Young Africa later . The lower decks have been hit and, at the top, we're still dancing. In early 2019, things become clear. Karoui throws a frontal challenge to the "system" by getting out of the nails. The flair of Karoui, again. He draws on the pool of desperation fueled by the betrayed socio-economic expectations of the revolution and subtly plays on the religious emotions of his audiences through references to the " merciful God" .Article reserved for our subscribers Read also Presidential elections in Tunisia: in a popular district of Tunis, the temptation of the "outsider" vote
At the head of the government, Mr. Chahed, who also feeds the highest ambitions, understands the danger. I-Watch's " tax evasion" case , which has been in limbo since 2016, is opportunely exhumed to justify incarceration at the end of August. " Treated like Pablo Escobar! His wife Salwa Samoui fumed. His arrest does not seem to break his popularity, on the contrary. Disaster Scenario for Chahed's Opponents: Whatever they do - let-do or obstruction - Nabil Karoui is cast as " an icebreaker ," as one analyst puts it, dismissing all obstacles in his path. But the ethical questions posed by his career are still far from over.Tunisia Follow the presidential election on WhatsApp
Frédéric Bobin (Tunis, correspondent)