With the death of 92-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi on Thursday, July 25, Tunisia lost its first democratically elected president.
Rabat – Essebsi began his political career under president Habib Bourguiba after Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956. When Zine El Abidine Ben Ali replaced Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987, Essebsi moved to align himself with the new leader. Essebsi retired from politics in 1991, returning two decades later during the Tunisian Revolution. At age 88, Essebsi became Tunisia’s first democratically-elected president in 2014.
Essebsi, one of the world’s lost one of its oldest governing heads of state, was hospitalized in late June for illness. After being readmitted on Thursday, he died that morning at Tunis Military hospital.
“In this great event Tunisia loses one of its great leaders, who have contributed in all its major battles in modern history, the battle for the liberation of the country from the grip of the colonizer, and the battle for the building of the national state,” said a statement shared on Facebook by Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes Party.
Born in 1926 into an elite family in the coastal city of Sidi Bou Said, Essebsi studied law in Paris. His interest in politics began at a young age, inspired by a pro-independence protest on April 9, 1938 in which 22 Tunisians died at the hands of French colonial forces.
He began his political career after Tunisia’s independence, serving as an advisor to President Habib Bourguiba. He went on to serve as Bourguiba’s Interior Minister, Defence Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister.
In 1987, Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali assumed the presidency after having Bourguiba declared mentally unfit for office. Essebsi quickly shifted his allegiance to the new leader’s Democratic Constitutional Rally party. After serving in Ben Ali’s cabinet as the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Essebsi retired in 1994.
Ben Ali resigned from office after revolution broke out in Tunisia in late 2010. Essebsi returned to politics in 2011 to serve as Prime Minister of the transitional government and help draft Tunisia’s new constitution.
In response to the instability the country faced in the wake of the Tunisian Revolution, Essebsi founded the secular, modernist Nidaa Tounes, or Call of Tunisia party in 2012.
When Tunisia held its first fully democratic presidential election in 2014, Essebsi won with almost 56% of the vote.
Since his election in 2014, Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes party moved toward the middle of the political spectrum. Essebsi’s centrist policies, adopted to mitigate the growing tide of Islamist extremism and stabilize a country coming out of revolution, could at times leave Tunisians feeling lacking representation in the government.
Essebsi pushed for gender equality and negotiated the delicate transfer of power following the Tunisian Revolution. Lauded for his role as Tunisia’s first democratically elected president, Essebsi also built his political career serving in the cabinets of two increasingly authoritarian leaders.
Essebsi planned to step down from the presidency this November following the country’s general elections, saying his departure was “necessary to clear the way for the youth.”
President of parliament Mohamed Ennaceur will serve as interim head of state. The Independent Electoral Commission of Tunisia reported Presidential elections will now be held on 15 September.
“[Beji Caid Essebsi] is the first democratically elected president of the country,” Tunisian scholar Raina Said Balti said to Morocco World News. “And his death is a test to our nascent democracy.”