Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, the North African country’s first democratically elected leader and a symbol of the generation of Tunisians who shook off French rule in the 1950s, died Thursday. He was 92.
In a hasty ceremony hours after Essebsi died at a military hospital in Tunis, the leader of parliament took over as interim president. However, Essebsi’s death while still in office could lead to new power struggles in the only country to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings with a functioning democracy and relative stability.
The government declared seven days of mourning, as condolences poured in from several Arab countries and the United Nations, A funeral is planned for Saturday.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Essebsi was “a pivotal figure” in Tunisia’s history who “was instrumental in successfully steering the country through its historic and peaceful transition to democracy.”
“President Essebsi was a Tunisian pioneer, an Arab and African trailblazer, and a global leader,” the United Nations chief said in a statement.
Heir to Tunisia’s founding father, Essebsi emerged from retirement at age 88 to win office in 2014 in the wake of the country’s Arab Spring revolt.
He presented his centrist Nida Tounes movement as a bulwark against rising Islamic fundamentalism and against the political chaos that rocked Tunisia after the “jasmine revolution” overthrew a longtime dictator and unleashed similar protests for democracy throughout the region.
Essebsi was seen as a unifying figure, but was ultimately unable to bring prosperity or lasting calm to a country beset by economic crises and fending off sporadic deadly terror attacks.
Under the Tunisian Constitution, parliament president Mohamed Ennaceur should serve as interim president for 45 to 90 days while a new election is organized.
In a brief speech after he took the oath of office, Ennaceur called on Tunisians “to strengthen your unity and solidarity so that the country can pursue its march toward progress.”
However, questions about the legitimacy of Ennaceur assuming the presidency could arise because the Constitutional Court was supposed to confirm the office was vacant. But the court itself doesn’t exist yet because lawmakers disagree over who its members should be.
Tunisia remains a haven of political openness and relative peace compared to the countries led by strongmen elsewhere in the Arab world and to the chaos reigning in neighboring Libya.
As Lebanon’s prime minister and Jordan’s royal court declared multiple days of mourning over Essebsi’s death, Syria’s government was notably silent. Demonstrations that broke out in Syria in 2011, in part inspired by Tunisia, have turned into a bloody civil war.
Most of Essebsi’s political career came well before the Arab Spring uprisings, and he outlived most of his peers in Tunisia’s independence generation.
In April, he announced he wouldn’t run in a November election, saying a younger person should lead the country instead.
Born Nov. 29, 1926, when Tunisia was a French protectorate, Essebsi entered politics in the 1940s and trained as a lawyer in Paris. But his name is most associated with Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, who built up the country and educated its people yet brooked little opposition.
Essebsi proudly claimed to be Bourguiba’s disciple, and from 1965 to 1986, he held several senior roles including defense minister, foreign minister and interior minister.
As a supporter of openness toward more political pluralism, Essebsi occasionally clashed with Bourguiba, who was known as Tunisia’s “supreme fighter.”
After Bourguiba was overthrown in a bloodless coup by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 1987, Essebsi left politics to be a lawyer and author, including writing a biography of Bourguiba. He was little heard from but never fully renounced his political ambitions.
Ben Ali’s fall in the Arab Spring of 2011 led to a difficult democratic transition for Tunisians. By the time Essebsi founded his own party in 2012 — already deep into his 80s — many were ready for a familiar face.
Essebsi often claimed with pride that it was the overwhelming support of Tunisian women that propelled him to power in 2014. Women in Tunisia won relatively broad rights under Bourguiba decades ago and many feared an Islamist wave would threaten those freedoms.
However, not having a majority in parliament, Essebsi had to make an alliance with Islamist party Ennahdha, which caused discontent in his party and cost him a good part of his electorate.
Essebsi also angered many of those who labored to build Tunisia’s democracy by seeking to increase presidential power, despite a landmark 2014 constitution that created a strong parliament to keep the president’s authority in check.
And he remained ever loyal to his mentor, restoring Bourguiba’s statue to the central Tunis avenue that bears his name.
But Tunisia has gone through nine governments since its 2011 uprising and each one has failed to resolve widespread poverty and unemployment, leading some to lose hope in the new democratic system.
Attacks by Islamic extremists, including some trained in neighboring Libya, have killed dozens and sent foreign tourists fleeing, damaging Tunisia’s key tourism industry.
Threatened this year with a general strike, Essebsi acknowledged Tunisia’s problems.
“A democracy cannot be built in eight years,” he said in January. “Tangible results need time.”
Essebsi had hoped, before leaving office, to see a law passed giving women equal inheritance rights, overturning the current system based on Islamic Shariah law that entitles daughters to only half the inheritance given to sons. But the measure was highly controversial and drew street protests by thousands of fundamentalists, who remain a potent force.
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