Tunisia’s President Essebsi Dies at 92

(Cairo) Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s president who died on July 25 at a military hospital in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, left his country’s political stage at a time most observers describe as “critical.”

Essebsi was 92, one of the world’s oldest leaders. He was admitted to the hospital a day earlier, for the second time in a month. There was no immediate comment from his office on the reasons for his death or the disease he had suffered from for months.

The late nonagenarian leader came to Tunisia’s helm in 2014, having won his country’s first free and democratic elections after the 2011 uprising that ousted long-serving president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. This was a time of utmost rivalry between Tunisia’s Islamists and its secularists, who were largely led by his Nidaa Tounes (Tunisia’s Call) movement and party.

Essebsi’s rival in the elections was Moncef Marzouki, a leftist who functioned as Tunisia’s interim president following Ben Ali’s downfall. Marzouki enjoyed strong backing from his country’s Islamists, mainly the Ennhada Movement and Party, which are ideological offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Essebsi was an old hand in Tunisian politics. Born in the northern Tunisian town of Sidi Bou Said, he started his political career very early on in his life. He studied law in Paris, and when he returned to Tunisia, he joined the Neo Destour, one of Tunisia’s major political parties under the French occupation of the North African nation.

Young Essebsi was infatuated with the way of thinking of Tunisia’s former leader Habib Bourguiba. He was hired by Bourguiba to work as his adviser. This was after Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956.

Essebsi then served as his country’s ambassador in France. Nevertheless, he soon quit his diplomatic post and returned to Tunisia where he – together with other politicians and political activists – campaigned for greater freedoms and democracy.

This struggle brought him to the political limelight, turning him into a candidate for the foreign affairs portfolio, a portfolio he took over for some time before he was appointed as Tunisia’s ambassador to West Germany.

In 1987, he was appointed as the prime minister of Tunisia by then-president Ben Ali. Soon after the downfall of the Ben Ali regime, Essebsi acted as an interim prime minister, a job he quit to form his Nidaa Tounes Party in 2012.

As a president, Essebsi was a great reformer and a women’s rights campaigner. He put his full weight behind his country’s formulation of laws that equated men and women in inheritance rights. This put him and Tunisia at the center of criticism by scholars and the religious establishments of more conservative Islamic states.

Although he was an avowed secularist, Essebsi did not mind handing over power to a government led by his country’s Islamists, which was seen by observers as a move that helped Tunisia evade the unrest engendered in other Arab Spring states by rivalry between secular and liberal forces on one hand, and Islamist forces on the other.

A month ago, Essebsi’s party members asked him to seek reelection in his country’s presidential elections which are scheduled for November. He countered, however, by saying that he wanted to give the chance to younger politicians to lead his country.

Nonetheless, the same presidential elections are cause for worry among the Tunisians.

The country’s Islamists continue to constitute a viable political force, and the fear is that an Islamist victory in the elections would cause Tunisia to backpedal on many of the reforms introduced during Essebsi’s years as president. Tunisia will also hold parliamentary elections in October.

The North African nation also continues to struggle to bring its economy back on track, as the unemployment rate remains high, tourist inflows remain low and foreign investments slow down. Tunisia also continues to struggle against terrorism, a threat that compounds all the other political and economic threats facing it.