Tunisians bid farewell to their president Beji Caid Essebsi last Saturday in a grand procession from Carthage Palace to the Jellaz Cemetery in the capital Tunis where he was buried.
Essebsi had passed away on 25 July at the age of 92. His funeral ceremony was attended by numerous heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, acting Algerian President Abdel-Kader Ben Saleh, King Felipe VI of Spain, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit and Chairman of the Libyan Presidency Council Fayez Al-Sarraj.
The late president died the day after he was admitted to the Military Hospital in Tunis due to a sudden deterioration in his health. It was the second time he had had to be hospitalised in less than a month.
Essebsi, who had been the eldest head of state in office after the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II, was the first democratically elected Tunisian president after the revolution that overthrew the regime of former president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
He was also the last of the Bourguibans: the generation of leaders that rose to power with former Tunisian leader Habib Bourguiba after their country’s independence from France in 1956.
A veteran politician, Essebsi began his career as a lawyer and activist in the independence movement and then served in the governments of presidents Bourguiba and Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in the post-independence era. He was an ardent champion of progressive causes and had been fiercely criticised by conservative circles for his advocacy of women’s rights.
Born on 29 November 1926 in Sidi Bou Said on the outskirts of the Tunisian capital, Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi graduated in law from Sadiki College in Tunis and then went on to study in France, firstly in Dijon in 1948 and then in Paris two years later.
Upon his return to Tunisia in July 1952, he joined a law firm and the following year he began work as a lawyer for the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the most important and most influential union organisation in the country.
As a young man, Essebsi joined the New Constitutional Liberal Party that spearheaded the independence movement during the French colonial era. The Neo-Destour Party, as it was more commonly called, was led by Bourguiba with whom Essebsi became personally acquainted in 1950 by dint of his friendship with Bourguiba’s son whom Essebsi knew from his university days in Paris.
After Tunisia won its independence in 1956, Essebsi served as an adviser to Bourguiba. Subsequently, between 1965 and the mid-1980s he held the three key ministerial posts of interior minister, defence minister and minister of foreign affairs. Before becoming foreign minister, he served as his country’s ambassador to Paris.
He was elected to parliament in 1989, becoming speaker from 1990 to 1991. He then ceased to play a role in politics and disappeared from public life.
With the fall of the Ben Ali regime in 2011, Essebsi returned to the political stage as prime minister appointed by interim president Fouad Mebazaa. From 27 February to 13 December 2011, he administered his country’s affairs during the crucial first part of the interim phase that saw the election of the Constituent Assembly charged with drafting a new constitution.
After leaving government in 2012, Essebsi founded the liberal Nidaa Tounes Party, which won a majority in the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014 against stiff competition from the Islamist Ennahda Party. Essebsi then served as president of Tunisia until his death on 25 July.
A liberal and a pragmatist and both daring and flexible, as president Essebsi skilfully managed the sharp political polarisation in his country and succeeded in steering it towards stability in a turbulent region. While he often came under the glare of his political adversaries for his affiliation with the former regime, he was nevertheless widely recognised as a patriotic leader who put his country’s national interests first as he navigated the political fluctuations at home and kept his country aloof from the political squabbles in North Africa and the Middle East.
Despite his major differences with the Tunisian Islamists, Essebsi was able to sustain a form of consensus, albeit fragile, for several years with the main exponent of this trend, the Ennahda Party.
However, this consensus fell apart in September 2018 when Ennahda built a new alliance with a dissident wing within Nidaa Tounes, Essebsi’s own party. This wing was led by Youssef Chahed, who subsequently broke with Nidaa Tounes in order to form his own party and who is currently among the candidates to succeed Essebsi as Tunisia’s president.
Observers feared that the breakdown in the consensus between Essebsi and Ennahda would lead to renewed polarisation and possible violence, especially given Tunisia’s worsening economic straits and high unemployment. However, the late president’s pragmatism averted a crisis that might have jeopardised what Western observers have regarded as a model of democracy in the region in the post-Arab Spring period.
In keeping with his progressive outlook, Essebsi championed a controversial bill granting Tunisian Muslim women the right to marry non-Muslims and an equally controversial bill calling for gender equality in inheritance rights that he had submitted to parliament in August 2018.
He also had to deal with the thorny question of the election of members of the country’s Constitutional Court, interrupted as a result of partisan disputes and rivalries. Neither the inheritance rights nor the Constitutional Court question has yet been resolved.
The future of Nidaa Tounes, the party that Essebsi founded in 2012, is unclear in view of the schism that led to the creation of the breakaway Long Live Tunisia Party led by Chahed. As a result, Nidaa Tounes lost its parliamentary majority in favour of Ennahda.
In April this year, Essebsi announced that he would not stand for re-election in the presidential elections scheduled for 17 November. Following Essebsi’s death, the Independent High Authority for Elections announced last Friday that the elections would be brought forward to 15 September.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The last of the Bourguibans