Tunisian president’s death changes country’s political landscape

Born in 1926, when Tunisia was a monarchy under French rule, Caid Essebsi entered politics in the 1950s and trained as a lawyer in Paris.
Saturday 27/07/2019
Transition. Military officers escort the coffin of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi during his funeral in Tunis, Tunisia July 27. (Reuters)
Transition. Military officers escort the coffin of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi during his funeral in Tunis, Tunisia July 27. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi’s death united Tunisians in grief but his passing leaves a gaping hole in the political scene as the country struggles with economic and social crises and weak secularist parties amid preparations for elections this year.

Caid Essebsi, 92, died July 25 at the military hospital in Tunis. A state funeral took place July 27. The government declared seven days of mourning and several Arab countries announced periods of mourning in solidarity with Tunisia.

Messages of sympathy flowed from Arab and Western leaders paying tribute to Caid Essebsi’s stewardship of Tunisia during its difficult democratic transition and for his globally recognised role in empowering women. A spiritual heir to Tunisia’s modern founder Habib Bourguiba, Caid Essebsi tried to the last minute to introduce equality of inheritance between genders.

Tunisia has granted women more rights than other countries in the region and, since 2017, allowed Tunisian Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men.

Like other ambitious projects initiated by Caid Essebsi, including attempts to improve the economic and social situation of Tunisians, the inheritance rights draft law stalled because of divisions in the secularist camp and opposition by Islamists and other conservatives. There have been hints that secularists will work to revive the initiative to honour Caid Essebsi’s memory.

Caid Essebsi’s death ushered in a smooth and rapid succession in compliance with the Tunisian Constitution, which stipulates that the parliament speaker should be named interim president. As such, Mohamed Ennaceur assumed the presidency for up to 90 days, pending the election of a president September 15. Tunisia had a presidential election scheduled for November.

Caid Essebsi had repeatedly educated Tunisians and the political class about respect for the constitution as a guarantee for the country’s stability. “I do not agree with many sections in this constitution text but I must respect it and implement it and defend its respect while I’m in office,” he said.

Caid Essebsi was widely seen as a unifying figure in a fractured political landscape boasting more than 130 political parties. He took his role as the nation’s father to heart, reaching out to Islamists and their secularist foes to pull the country out of chaos in 2011 and presiding over its first free and fair elections as prime minister.

He mediated a compromise to ease Tunisia from a political confrontation between Islamists and their opponents in 2013. That compromise and dialogue spared Tunisia the kind of violence and bloodshed experienced by Syria, Yemen and Libya.

The effort was noted by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awarded its 2015 Nobel Peace Prize to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet for avoiding a civil war in 2013 and the efforts of “building a pluralistic democracy.”

The transition after Caid Essebsi’s death impressed experts. “Politically and practically, the Tunisian state has succeeded in a significant test in its history,” said political writer Sofiene Ben Hamida.

Prior to the 2014 general elections, Caid Essebsi founded Nidaa Tounes, a political party that served as a counterweight to Islamists and won the vote. The electoral victory made him the first politician in the region to oust Islamists from power in free elections.

Caid Essebsi became president in December 2014, replacing maverick rights activist and Islamist ally Moncef Marzouki. Caid Essebsi proceeded to restore Tunisia’s balanced role in the region after a drift towards alignment with Turkey and Qatar and their Muslim Brotherhood allies.

He hosted an Arab summit in Tunis this year with key Arab leaders from Saudi Arabia and Egypt attending.

Most of Caid Essebsi’s political career came well before the 2011 uprising that pulled him out of retirement.

Born in 1926, when Tunisia was a monarchy under French rule, Caid Essebsi entered politics in the 1950s and trained as a lawyer in Paris.

His prestige and experience as a leader came from his association with Bourguiba, who helped take the nation out of poverty and social backwardness. However, Bourguiba brooked little opposition, deeming the population not ready for democratic pluralism.

As president, he was criticised by some secularist liberals and many Islamists for his defence of the “state authority and prestige,” arguing that he was showing “nostalgia” for authoritarianism.

More recently, Caid Essebsi drew the ire of Islamists and secularists aligned with Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed for not signing amendments to an electoral law excluding some leading candidates.

The amendment said Tunisia’s Electoral Commission must reject candidates who use political advertising, “charitable associations” or foreign funding during the year before an election.

It is not clear whether Ennaceur, as interim president, will sign the amendments.

Ennaceur, after he was sworn in on July 25, called on Tunisians “to strengthen your unity and solidarity so the country can pursue its march towards progress.”

Amid the sadness about the loss of Caid Essebsi, many Tunisians fret about the future, worrying that Islamists would take advantage of divided secularists to win the elections and change the country’s social fabric and cultural identity.

Others hope that the wave of sympathy for Caid Essebsi will prompt an “awakening” of voters to defend his vision of Tunisia as a moderate secularist Muslim state and society.

“We love you and we will always love you. We will remember you like we do with Bourguiba. We will talk of you as we talk of Bourguiba. We will make sure that your name will be taught in our history books so that our children are like you,” wrote Nizar Bahloul, editor of the online magazine Business News.

“Goodbye, Beji. Goodbye, Bajbouj. Goodbye, Mr President. Goodbye, Father of our Nation,” he added.

“Bajbouj” is a term of endearment used by the population for Beji Caid Essebsi.