Tunisia’s president dies

The 92-year-old Béji Caïd Essebsi led the country’s post-Arab Spring transition to democracy. The speaker of the Parliament has been sworn in as interim president and elections have been moved ahead to September 15.

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Tunis – Tunisia’s 92-year-old president Béji Caïd Essebsi died this Thursday (25) at the Tunis Military Hospital, the Presidency of the Republic said. Local news outlet TAP reported that Essebsi passed at 10:25 am, local time, a few hours after going into intensive care. He had been hospitalized before in the recent past.

Mohamed Ennaceur, speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People – Tunisia’s Parliament –, has been sworn in as interim president.

Hasna Ben Slimane, the spokeswoman for the Independent High Authority for Elections (Isie), announced that the presidential vote formerly slated for November will be moved ahead to September 15, 2019.

Prime minister Youssef Chahed declared seven days of national mourning and suspended all art and culture activities across the country.

Essebsi during the December 2014 elections

Essebsi during the December 2014 elections, which he won

Essebsi led the transition to democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring – or Jasmine Revolution, as it became known in Tunisia. The uprising ultimately overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who’d been in power for 20-plus years.

TAP said Essebsi was born November 29, 1926 in Sidi Bousaïd, a historic village north of Tunis. He graduated in 1950 at the Paris Law Faculty in France and joined the Bar Association two years later. At that point, Tunisia was still a French colony.

Essebsi joined Habib Bourguiba’s Néo-Destour Party at a young age. Bourguiba led Tunisia’s independence movement and was the first president of the Republic of Tunisia. TAP reported that following the Independence (1956), Bourguiba appointed Essebsi as his adviser, and later as regional administration director at the Ministry of the Interior.

In 1963, Essebsi was named National Police director general, a few months after a failed coup attempt against Bourguiba. He took office as Interior minister two years later and served as minister of Defense in 1969-1970.

Late 1971 saw Essebsi suspended – and later expelled – from the Party for having joined the push for democratic reforms under the Bourguiba administration, according to TAP.

In 1978, he became affiliated with the Movement of Socialist Democrats, a party founded and led by attorney and politician Ahmed Mestiri. At that point, the party opposed the regime, and Essebsi directed its French-language newspaper Démocratie (Democracy).

By 1980 Essebsi rejoined the administration, first as cabinet member for then-prime minister Mohamed Mzali, and later as minister of Foreign Affairs.

Essebsi also served as ambassador to Paris and Bonn, then the capital of West Germany.

In 1989 he was voted into the Chamber of Deputies, where he became speaker in 1990-91. After that, he devoted himself to his law firm.

In January 2011, following the Arab Spring, Essebsi led the transition government up until parliamentary elections were held on October 23.

The following year saw him found his own party, Nidaa Tounes (The Call of Tunisia), which won 86 chairs in Parliament in the October 2014 elections. He was elected president in December 2014.

Essebsi is survived by his wife and four children.

Repercussions

Tunisia’s president Essebsi and France’s Emmanuel Macron

France’s president Emmanuel Macron said “France loses a friend and the Republic of Tunisia, a brave leader who presided over the country at a crucial juncture of its history, one at which it has resisted all obscurantism to build its future, democracy and progress.”

UN secretary-general António Guterres said Essebsi “was a pivotal character in Tunisia’s history and independence.” In a communiqué, the European Union mourned the loss of “a courageous, respected leader of Tunisia’s democratic life.”

League of Arab States secretary-general Ahmed Abou Gheit offered his condolences to the people and government of Tunisia. Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine declared a three-day national mourning.

Brazil

In Brasília, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement lamenting the death of Tunisia’s president. “During 50-plus years of political activity, Béji Caïd Essebsi played a key role in the process of independence and consolidation of the Tunisian State, and he led the way in the political transition that began in 2011,” the statement reads.

It goes on to state that as president, “Essebsi helped renew and enhance Brazil-Tunisia relations in an unprecedented way, and our ties of friendship and cooperation are increasingly driven by the shared aspirations of our peoples to democracy, freedom of religion and the promotion of economic and social development.”

Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum

Fethi Belaid/AFP
Fethi Belaid/AFP
TAP

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