Tunisia’s president, a formidable figure in the country’s politics whose career bridged the country’s transition from colonial ward to dictatorship to fledgling democracy, died on Thursday, state media reported.
Mohammed Beji Caid Essebsi was 92, the oldest sitting president in the world.
“Tunisia is losing one of its senior leaders who had taken part in all its major battles in contemporary history,” said a statement issued by his Nidaa Tounes party. “The wars for liberation from colonialism, building an independent state and establishing a democratic order.”
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Tunisia public broadcaster changed its logo to black and played Koranic citations, and the government announced seven days of mourning in the north African state of 10 million.
Scholars described a mixed legacy for Essebsi. He fought for Tunisian democracy, but also served the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1980s, and served as vehicle for the reemergence of the old guard.
“He tried to foster education and progressive values, but he also encouraged nepotism through offering his son the leadership of his party and by nominating a lot of people in high positions by their degree of allegiance not their competency,” said Youssef Cherif, a political analyst at the Columbia Global Centers in Tunis. “He helped improve Tunisia’s image abroad, but he didn’t try to capitalise on Tunisia as a free and revolutionary country.”
Still, said Mr Cherif, history would regard Essebsi as “one of Tunisia’s greatest political figures.”
A French-educated lawyer and longtime political figure, Essebsi passed away after being admitted to the Tunis Military Hospital, said the Tunisian Press Agency, citing a press release by the presidency. He had been ailing for months, and many Tunisians expected his passing. He recently announced that he would not run in the election scheduled for November, saying a younger person should lead the country.
Mohamed Ennaceur, the president of parliament is set to take over as interim head of state. Under the country’s constitution, the president of the parliament will assume the presidency for 45 to 90 days while elections are organised. So far the transition is proceeding smoothly with the country uniting in mourning. “I doubt this will seriously impact Tunisia’s stability,” said Monica Marks, a Tunisia specialist at Oxford. “Tunisia has a clear process in place that’s widely accepted as legitimate.”
Essebsi’s passing will likely prompt for influence within Nidaa Tounis between his son, Hafedh, a leader of party, and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who leads a breakaway faction. Mr Cherif suggested Mr Cherif’s passing signals the end for the party, “which is already falling apart and almost inexistent on the ground.”
Tunisia has charted a unique democratic course since the self-immolation of a frustrated fruit vendor ignited a revolution in Tunisia and inspired the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. It became the sole Middle East or North African country to topple its longtime dictator and move peacefully towards pluralism.
Essebsi served as Tunisia’s transitional leader after the 2011 popular uprising that drove out long-time ruler Zine el Abedine Ben Ali, and then was elected president in 2014 elections.
A standard-bearer for the country’s secular coastal elite, he has been nonetheless credited by diplomats and scholars for forging a detente with his chief adversary and rival, the Islamist Ennahdha Party, which was outlawed and severely repressed under Mr Ben Ali but has been a major political force since 2011.
Rachid Ghannouchi, president of Ennahdha, issued a statement on Thursday describing the man with whom he had a complicated relationship as “a true patriot and a pillar of Tunisia’s democratic transition,” and calling for an orderly succession.
“He made history as the first elected president of Tunisia’s Second Republic,” said Mr Ghannouchi. “He would have wanted all Tunisians to uphold the Constitution and rule of law and to maintain our democratic path, no matter what challenges we face.”
Born in the picturesque and lively town Sidi Bousaid, a seaside suburb of Tunis, Essebsi studied law in Paris and became a disciple of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first ruler after emerging from French rule, serving stints as minister of interior, minister of defence, and envoy to France and West Germany as well as other posts.
Mr Bourguiba is still celebrated as a giant of Tunisian history, a visionary who invested the country’s resources in education and infrastructure. But his successor, Mr Ben Ali, while initially promising reform, is widely regarded as brutal and corrupt enforcer who tortured political prisoners and oversaw a police state.
Essebsi served as lawmaker and briefly as president of parliament early in Mr Ben Ali’s rule, but left government to practice law in the early 1990s, avoiding the stain of being associated with the regime’s worst excesses.
In the tumultuous weeks after Mr Ben Ali’s downfall and banishment to Saudi Arabia, Essebsi emerged as interim prime minister, leaving the post late in the year after Ennahdha won the country’s first parliamentary vote. He stayed in politics, forming his own party, and winning the presidency in 2014 with 56 per cent of the vote. He garnered the support of Tunisians suspicious of Ennahdha’s Islamist-leaning agenda and disappointed by its handling of the economy. But Essebsi too failed to come up with a way to revive Tunisia’s economy, which remains the biggest threat to its stability and democratic path.
Many criticised Essebsi during his final years as president as disengaged and rudderless, isolated from the realities on the street behind the ornate walls of the presidential palace in Carthage.
“As president, Essebsi often felt like an absent captain,” said Ms Marks. “The steely vigour which he brought to political engagement before 2015 noticeably dissipated when he entered Carthage. Most political insiders I spoke with guessed that becoming president had been his overarching goal, and that once he found himself in Carthage he sort of kicked back.”
But spurning pressure by Arabian Peninsula hereditary dictatorships to crack down on Ennahdha as Egypt’s ruler Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi did against the Muslim Brotherhood, Essebsi instead warily partnered with Ennahdha in attempting to stabilise the country, fight outbreaks of terrorism, and improve a struggling economy.
“Essebsi campaigned to victory in 2014 by systematically characterising Ennahda as dangerous, even violent, fundamentalist retrogrades who lacked education and modernity,” said Ms Marks. “But he came to have a sort of begrudging respect with regard Ennahdha.”
Ms Marks said that Essebsi’s greatest moment as leader was when he showed up as the keynote speaker for Ennahda’s party congress in May 2016, which she called among the most significant moments in Tunisia’s political history. “I’ve never seen anything that surreal,” said Ms Marks, who attended the gathering. “He got more cheers than Ghannouchi. Thousands give them a standing ovation. That moment when he gave that address that was an extremely pivotal moment.”