Essebsi: The veteran politician who led Tunisia to democracy 

Fatma Lotfi
10 Min Read
Beji Caid Essebsi, the President of Tunisia, has died. He was elected to office in 2014 following the Arab Spring uprising

Tunisia bid farewell to its first freely and democratically elected President, Beji Caid Essebsi, who died last Thursday aged 92, after being admitted to a military hospital due to suffering from a “severe health crisis”. 

Tunisia witnessed on Saturday a grand funeral with the attendance of several world leaders, befitting a man who championed national consensus and who backed women’s rights during his rule; however, some of his actions were controversial among opponents, especially those taken before his presidency.

Essebsi came to office in December 2014, after winning the country’s first free presidential poll since the sweeping uprising which toppled the long-time autocrat Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 after 23 years in office. 

He announced in April that he would not run in the elections that were scheduled in November this year, saying that it is time for younger people to step up. But now with his death, the polls are expected to be held earlier in September, however the date yet to be confirmed.

The speaker of Tunisia’s parliament, Mohamed Ennaceur, was sworn in as interim president on Thursday.

“Thank you, my president. Your funeral will never be forgotten. You are a source of pride for Tunisia,” Nouha Belaid, a Tunisian journalist and professor wrote on Saturday on Facebook.

Essebsi’s death came at a time of increasing tensions for Tunisia. The north African country witnessed two suicide attacks in the capital which killed two, including a police officer while several others were injured.

Earlier in October 2018, a female suicide bomber blew herself up in the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, wounding 20 people including 10 police personnel.

“Unique national figure”

“Essebsi was crucial to Tunisia throughout its history as an independent state, so it is fitting that he died on Republic Day,” Sarah Yerkes, fellow, Middle East Programme at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Daily News Egypt.

“While he was not always well-loved, he will be remembered for putting the country ahead of his party, particularly during the very difficult time in 2012-2013 when the democratic transition seemed like it was heading towards failure,” Yerkes continued.

Meanwhile, Yerkes added that Essebsi will also be remembered for his attempts at increasing equality for women, “particularly through changes to the inheritance law to allow women equal opportunity for inheritance.”

Beji Caid Essebsi

He also took a brave move in August 2018 to support an unprecedented draft which aims to grant Muslim women equal inheritance rights, as the current system is based on the Islamic Shariah law which allows daughters to only half the inheritance given to sons.

Essebsi decreed to allow Muslim women to marry men outside the Islamic faith. Islam set strict rules that prevent her from marrying a non-Muslim man.

On the upcoming period for Tunisia, Yerkes pointed out that “there is no one who has such experience as Essebsi in Tunisian politics, other than Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, so Essebsi’s death leaves somewhat of a vacuum.”

“I expect that his departure will signal a shift in the political scene, but it is not yet clear who will become the next leader of Tunisia,” Yerkes suggested.

“It is also worth noting that the transition after his death was incredibly smooth, something not common in the MENA region and something that can be challenging for a young democracy. Within hours of Essebsi’s passing, the constitutionally-mandated process took over and there was no chaos or uncertainty,” Yerkes highlighted.

Meanwhile, Charles W Dunne, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC agreed that Essebsi was “an almost unique figure in the uprisings and leadership changes of 2011 and after that.”

“He was a national figure who acted in what he saw as national interests, not party interests,” Dunne told DNE.

“Essebsi championed national consensus, women’s rights, and the full access of all Tunisians to the country’s democratic processes,” Dunne noted.

Dunne added, “Essebsi helped broker political compromise at times when it appeared the revolution would collapse. And he voluntarily stood down from power when he needed to. Essebsi set a pattern of leadership that will be vital for Tunisia’s continued progress.”

Important legacy

“Essebsi was not the only actor in Tunisia’s democratic transition since 2011, but he was an important figure in contributing to its success so far,” Amy Hawthorne, deputy director for Research at the Project on Middle East Democracy told DNE.

Hawthorne also praised the temporary transfer of power, describing it as very smooth and peaceful. She added that “his successor will be chosen in a free and fair election in mid-September.”    

“Perhaps his most important legacy was his successful attempts to forge consensus with the Ennahda Party, an Islamist movement, and his secular party, Nidaa Tounes. This power-sharing that he helped achieve has been crucial to Tunisian political stability,” Hawthorne outlined.

“In the future, Tunisia will get a different next president than Essebsi, as he was a very senior figure in Tunisian politics and had served under the dictatorship as well as after the revolution. He represents a certain generation in Tunisian politics, and a new generation will now take the lead,” Hawthorne added.

A controversial leader

Essebsi was a veteran politician who was born on 29 November 1926 in Sidi Bou Said. He studied at the Sadiki Middle School and then moved to Paris to study law and he embarked on a legal career.

On a political level, he had a prominent career of more than 60 years. He served under late President Habib Bourguiba, who took power after the country gained independence from France.

Essebsi was devoted to Bourguiba and a close ally. He served under his rule as director of national security, defence, and interior minister. Looking to him as a “guide,” he wrote a book titled, “Habib Bourguiba: The Wheat and the Chaff,” in 2009.

Under the rule of Tunisian autocrat Ben Ali, Essebsi served as head of parliament. He retired in 1994, but following the Tunisian uprising in 2011, Essebsi came back to the political scene to be an interim prime minister.

In 2012, he founded his secular political party, Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia) against the increasing influence of Islamic fundamentalism. In the October 2014 parliamentary election, his party won most seats in parliament, paving the way for Essebsi to run for office.

During his rule, Essebsi was largely criticized for many reasons, for his old age during his presidency, and most importantly for the period, he served under Bourguiba’s rule, as he was accused when being an interior minister of human rights violations.

A 2019 report by the Instance Verité et Dignité (IVD), or the Truth and Dignity Commission, accused Essebsi of “complicity in torture in his capacity as the interior minister for Bourguiba, from 1965 and 1969,” according to the Human Rights Watch.

The commission detailed in its report the role of Bourguiba and Ben Ali as well as other top officials in “the torture, arbitrary detention, and numerous other abuses of thousands of Tunisians.”

The commission was established in December 2013 and tasked to address human rights violations and corruption between 1955 and 2013.

In response, Essebsi rejected claims, accusing the IVD of increasing divisions among Tunisians, saying that the commission is acting “as a state within a state.”

On the other hand, Essebsi was seen by his supporters as the man who brought stability to Tunisia after the mass revolution that ousted Ben Ali.

The former president was known for his political reforms and supporting gender equality including reforming the country’s laws on marriage and inheritance, despite criticism inside and even outside Tunisia.

Essebsi also asserted that he supports freedom of speech and free press; however, he did not usually welcome some media criticism.

Meanwhile, he was accused of paving the way for his son, politician Hafedh Caïd Essebsi, to inherit the presidency after him, but he repeatedly denied such claims.

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A journalist in DNE's politics section with more than six years of experience in print and digital journalism, focusing on local political issues, terrorism and human rights. She also writes features on women issues and culture.