Country’s first democratically elected head of state played major role after fall of Ben Ali
Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s president and a major figure in the country’s transition to democracy after the Arab spring, has died.
Politicians and social media users had been calling for greater transparency about the president’s health since he was admitted to hospital in May amid fears for the country’s stability.
Tunisia is often described as the lone success story of the revolutions of 2011 because of its slow but steady progress towards democracy, despite extended economic problems.
Essebsi had appeared feeble in a video of a meeting at the defence ministry released by his office on Monday. He died in a military hospital on Thursday morning, his office said.
Essebsi, who at 92 was the oldest head of state after the Queen, has been a major figure in Tunisian politics since the uprisings that led to the overthrow of the longtime despot Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Ben Ali took power in 1987 after ousting Essebsi’s mentor, Habib Bourguiba, who led Tunisia to independence from France in 1956 and ruled afterwards.
The unexpected fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia triggered the Arab spring uprisings against authoritarian leaders across the Middle East, including in nearby Libya and Egypt.
Essebsi, who served as an adviser to Bourguiba and then as his foreign minister, returned to active politics after a break of two decades to serve as interim prime minister in the chaotic aftermath of Ben Ali’s ousting.
Though an affirmed secularist, Essebsi handed over power to a government led by Tunisia’s Islamists, an act many analysts say was crucial in ensuring stability in the small north African country.
He subsequently reached out to Islamist leaders to avoid a political breakdown before launching his own party, the secularist Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunis) party, and bid to win the presidency. The former lawyer won the country’s first democratic presidential election in 2014.
Rachid Ghannouchi, the president of the Ennahda party, said: “We call on all Tunisians to support and be part of the peaceful transition of power in accordance with our constitution, the rule of law and the protection of our democratic institutions.”
Despite his party’s calls in June for him to stand again, Essebsi said he would not run for a second term in presidential elections later this year, saying the country needed someone younger.
Presidential elections that had been scheduled for 17 November were brought forward by several weeks on Thursday. It is not clear whether they will be held before or after parliamentary elections scheduled for 6 October. According to the constitution, the speaker of parliament will temporarily serve as president.
Though the crisis of 2013 has not been repeated, Tunisia still faces multiple challenges. Security forces have been battling militant groups in remote desert areas on the border with Algeria since Ben Ali was toppled, and high unemployment has stoked unrest.
Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in separate attacks on police in the capital, Tunis, last month, killing one officer and wounding eight other people.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the suicide attacks, which came at the peak of a tourism season in which Tunisia was hoping to attract record numbers of visitors, and a few months before the general election.
Essebsi had neither rejected nor enacted an amended electoral code passed by parliament in June that would exclude several strong candidates from the polls.
The restrictions would rule out the candidacy of Nabil Karoui, who was charged this month with money laundering. The media magnate has formed a political party and stated his intention to stand in the poll.