What Tunisians were celebrating at their president’s funeral
There have been very few moments in Tunisia’s modern history as significant as the day the country buried its fifth president, Beji Caid Essebsi.
People of all classes, ages and sexes came out that day. Many cried but somehow the late president’s funeral looked more like a national celebration than a grim occasion for grieving.
What were Tunisians celebrating? Many things.
They were celebrating their coming together after years of self-doubt and mutual suspicion brought about by political divisiveness, unprecedented security woes and mounting economic hardship.
A sense of pride was shared by all on July 27. Pride in the smooth and swift succession ushered in that day according to the terms of the constitution.
There was also pride in the army, which impeccably conducted the various partitions of the funeral ceremony. The armed forces obviously went back to their barracks after rendering their services on that exceptional day. They were expected to. Still, more than ever, people could intuitively see them as able guarantors of the civil state and of democracy.
Above all, however, Tunisians of all hues, old hands and revolutionaries, conservatives and progressives, were celebrating their freedom.
They were suddenly realising to what extent they were free to express themselves. Even those who doubted whether anything had really changed since 2011 could see what the eight years had ushered in — an era of tangible freedom.
In things small and big, they were free. They were free to stand in any spot on the side of the road. Free to sing the national anthem if they wanted. Free to scream their lungs out or just keep quiet. Free to scribble “Farewell Bajbouj” on improvised signs. Many were giving their children a lesson in civic education. The young seemed to understand the lesson as they gave the passing coffin their crooked version of a military salute.
Thousands lined the streets. Crowds did not have to worry about the police, which was there grieving with them, (politely) enforcing security cordons and distributing bottles of spring water in the hot, humid summer day.
People were celebrating the very freedom that Caid Essebsi venerated during his tenure even when liberal think-tanks, especially in the West, accused him of harbouring neo-authoritarian reflexes.
Every time he signed a decree extending the state of emergency, there was suspicion he was muscling up his hold on power. He had tried to explain the need for the emergency decrees but eventually gave up. Faithful to a post-independence tradition that prized state authority as a prerequisite in nation-building, Caid Essebsi considered respect for state institutions as one of the pillars of democracy-building.
With their newly gained freedom, many Tunisians were re-enacting in their own way the botched funeral of Habib Bourguiba, the first president of Tunisia. Free of the top-down stale choreography that had marked Bourguiba’s funeral in April 2000, they were identifying Caid Essebsi with his spiritual mentor.
And there were the women of Tunisia, in veils, short skirts and traditional dresses. Some were even ululating, in a paradoxical expression of joy at funerals usually reserved in Tunisian tradition for martyrs and the prematurely deceased.
Women were there in force to say thank you to Caid Essebsi for standing by their rights all during his rule. They were there reiterating their pledge to be loyal to him the way he was loyal to them. They were there firmly committed to standing up for their inalienable rights as full-fledged citizens of their country regardless of what politicians decide. One could see on their faces the date of forthcoming elections and their determination to be there and be counted.
Caid Essebsi was no martyr or young man whose life was shortened by fate. He was an elder statesman with whom people felt a sudden and overwhelming sympathy, which opinion poll ratings could not reflect.
During the last weeks of his life, Caid Essebsi was a president without many prerogatives and very few allies left in parliament. He was deeply wounded but his charisma was still shining through. The day of his funeral, people decided that his aura would shine all the way to his iconic standing in the history books of Tunisia.