Beji Caid Essebsi: Veteran who ushered in democracy in Tunisia
The 92-year-old was Tunisia’s first democratically elected president and a long-time player on its political scene.
Tunisia‘s Beji Caid Essebsi had brushed aside concerns about his age when he was elected in his late 80s, and helped shepherd his country to its first free nationwide ballot in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring.
Essebsi died earlier on Thursday aged 92. “I have the age that I have,” he once told the AFP news agency, describing youth as “a state of mind”.
Tunisia’s first president to be democratically elected in nationwide polls, Essebsi passed away just months before his term ended, having already said he would not stand again in elections due in November.
Shrewd and wily, he was a long-time player on Tunisia’s political scene, serving under Habib Bourguiba, considered the father of Tunisian independence, as well as also under strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
After Ben Ali was deposed in 2011, Essebsi came to the fore as a supporter of the revolution and was elected in 2014, at the ripe age of 88, to steer the North African country.
His detractors had accused him of seeking to restore the regime of Ben Ali, who clung to power for 23 years before fleeing, combining authoritarian rule with a degree of prosperity and stability for his people.
But Essebsi stood his ground, saying former Ben Ali-regime figures had the “right” to play a role in governing Tunisia alongside all political factions.
“We want a 21st-century state, a progressive state,” Essebsi once said.
The son of an anti-Islamist lawyer born to a middle-class Tunisian family in 1926, Essebsi was to become the world’s oldest serving head of state after Britain’s Elizabeth II.
Born in Sidi Bou Said, a northern suburb of Tunis. He studied law in Paris and began practising in 1952.
After independence from France in 1956, he became an adviser to Bourguiba, holding a number of key jobs under him and later under Ben Ali.
Over the years, Essebsi was director-general of the national police and interior minister. He later held the defence portfolio before becoming ambassador to France.
In April, the commission tasked with healing the wounds of dictatorship dug up accusations of complicity for his role in the 1960s as national security chief and later interior minister for keeping silent about on the torture of victims.
After a subsequent posting as Tunisia’s envoy to Germany, he was named foreign minister. He also served in Parliament, holding the speakership in 1990 and 1991.
Due to his political experience, and despite his advanced age, he was named prime minister in February 2011, amid the tumult of the revolution.
He would lead the country to its first free elections in October 2011, that was won by the Islamist Ennahdha party.
The following year he was key in the founding of the Nidaa Tounes party, which brought together a mix of businessmen, academics, trade unionists and sympathisers of the old regime, united in their opposition to Ennahdha.
Nevertheless, Nidaa Tounes was to ally with Ennahdha after its 2014 electoral success, angering many of the party’s voters.
In the second half of his mandate, in the run-up to new elections, Essebsi’s relationship with Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi deteriorated, leading to a split at the end of 2018.
Working for equality
Essebsi worked to establish a legacy as a guarantor of equality between men and women regarding inheritance, bringing a bill before parliament on the sensitive subject that is touched on in the Quran.
While he often repeated that respect for human rights was a cornerstone of the new democracy, Essebsi’s detractors continued to accuse him of seeking to restore the regime of Ben Ali.
“He was often accused of giving in to many of the demands of the Islamist opposition, led by the Ennahdha party. His opponents also accused him of trying to instil a return to Ben Ali style strongman politics,” said Al Jazeera correspondent Imran Khan.
He spearheaded a controversial amnesty bill for people implicated in corruption allegations under Ben Ali.
Facing outcry, the text was revised to only include the officials accused of being implicated in administrative corruption scandals and not taking bribes.
He also said he was in favour of a more presidential regime, which would require revision of the 2014 constitution, one of the lasting achievements of the post-revolution period.
In the end, appointing his son Hafedh head of the Nidaa Tounes party sparked controversy and contributed to party infighting, with Essebsi accused of seeking a dynastic succession – something he consistently denied.