Beji Caid Essebsi: Tunisia's first democratically elected president

TUNIS, Nehal El-Sherif (dpa)- Tunisia's president has died at the age of 92 after almost five years in office. A champion of women's rights, he helped usher in a stable transition to democracy. Yet the end of his rule was overshadowed by several deadly attacks and political disputes.
Beji Caid Essebsi may have had limited powers under the constitution, but he will likely be remembered as a stabilizing force during a tumultuous period in Tunisia's history and praised for advancing women's rights.
Essebsi was elected president of Tunisia in December 2014, completing a democratic transition in the country after the 2010-11 uprising. He won a presidential run-off with 55.68 per cent of the vote against then-outgoing president and rights activist Moncef Marzouki.

At the time, Essebsi vowed to be a "president for all Tunisians." The country's future was "based on consensus. Tunisia needs its entire people without exclusion or discrimination," he said. 
Essebsi would need time to win the public's trust. Many Tunisians initially protested and expressed anger at his election, seeing him as an extension of the regime of long-time autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was deposed in 2011.
Essebsi died on Thursday at a military hospital in Tunis, capital of the North African country. He was admitted to the hospital on Wednesday evening, the second time since June 27. 
His passing comes during a time of renewed uncertainty for the country, as a series of intra-party disputes have dominated the political scene in the past year.
Born in 1926, Essebsi served in several high-ranking positions under Habib Bourguiba, the founder of independent Tunisia. He would later serve as parliament speaker in the Ben Ali era that began in 1987, when he ousted Bourguiba in a bloodless palace coup.
After Ben Ali’s removal from power, Essebsi, who studied law in Paris, became an interim prime minister for most of the Tunisia's turbulent first year. He stepped down after the Islamist Ennahda movement won elections for a constituent assembly.
Essebsi later founded the Nidaa Tounes party (Tunisia’s Call), portraying it as inheriting Bourguiba's legacy and fighting for moderation against Ennahda and more radical Islamist political groups.
Yet, his party formed an unlikely alliance with Ennahda in 2014, a move that ushered in several years of relative political stability.
Essebsi's pledge of stability would be challenged by Islamist insurgents who stepped up attacks, mainly targeting security forces. Most attacks were claimed by the Islamic State extremist group. 
The deadly violence continued while Essebsi was in power, including the Bardo Museum attacks in March 2015, which killed 21 tourists and a policeman. Three months later, 38 tourists were killed in an attack at a hotel in the coastal city of Sousse.
On June 27, the same day he was admitted to hospital for severe illness, two suicide bombings in the centre of the capital killed a policeman and injured eight people.
Essebsi’s time in office was also marred by economic problems that led to protests and strikes by many sectors of society, demanding better wages and working conditions.
Then, in 2018, Essebsi broke off the alliance with Ennahda after heightened tensions with Prime Minister Youssef Chahed - a member of his own party.
Essebsi called on Chahed to step down, but the premier was backed by Ennahda, which holds the highest number of seats in parliament. Chahed’s membership in Nidaa Tounes was suspended after the dispute escalated between him and party leader and Essebsi's son, Hafedh. 
The dispute led Nidaa Tounes to split and Chahed to form a new party.
However, it is Essebsi's stance on women's rights that may leave the biggest legacy, shifting the focus away from the country's economic grievances and political challenges.
In 2017, the country repealed a decades-old law banning Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims. Essebsi had proposed dropping the ban.
One year later, he referred a law to parliament introducing equal inheritance rights between men and women. Under Islamic Sharia law, a Muslim daughter inherits half the share a son gets. 
The move has sparked controversy across Muslim-dominated countries, but he was supported by many women in Tunisia, long seen as progressive on women's rights compared to other Arab countries.
It is his championing of these two topics that made some people liken him to Bourguiba, who advocated for women's rights and banned polygamy. Perhaps he will be remembered as carrying on the founder's legacy after all.

Friday, July 26th 2019
Nehal El-Sherif (dpa)

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