On July 25, Tunisia’s fifth president, Beji Caid Essebsi, passed away.
When Caid Essebsi was rushed to the Tunis military hospital on July 24, there were no indiscretions on social media about his state of health and there were no cold, calculating politicians jockeying for position, as was the case when he was admitted to the hospital in June.
After the first health scare, there was a sudden awareness how much the grandfatherly figure meant for the country. In the climate of civility and dignified calm that prevailed, there was a sombre realisation that the president’s condition was very serious this time.
The morning of July 25, a national holiday marking the proclamation of the republic 62 years ago, the presidential palace broke the sad news to the public.
Despite the initial shock, the leadership transition proceeded smoothly and according to the constitutional script within hours after the announcement of Caid Essebsi’s death. There were little or no legalistic squabbles as the speaker of parliament assumed the duties of interim president.
The absence of a Constitutional Court to declare the vacancy of the highest executive office did not hinder the process. State institutions functioned without a glitch, contrary to the usual conspicuous squeaks on any national event. Even partisan bickering took the day off. There was little traffic on the streets as people mostly stayed home on the national holiday, quietly mourning their leader.
It was time to remember Caid Essebsi and his exceptional journey of public service. The coincidence of him dying on the anniversary of the republic reminded people of the role he played in nation-building since independence. From 1956-2019, Caid Essebsi served in various key positions, including minister of defence, minister of interior, minister of foreign affairs, speaker of parliament, head of government and president of the republic.
Caid Essebsi, who in March assumed the chairmanship of the Arab League summit, was a refined diplomat. His worldview was highly imbued with the qualities of his mentor and icon, Habib Bourguiba. Caid Essebsi was especially inspired by Bourguiba’s emphasis on gradualism and rejection of anti-Western zealotry.
He was, like Bourguiba, a pragmatist who did not see Tunisia pushing its weight around but an unassuming nation committed to peaceful resolution of conflicts through active neutrality.
Much like Bourguiba, too, there were moments Caid Essebsi felt principles were mightier than the sword. During a 2013 interview, he told me he was particularly marked by Bourguiba’s uncompromising stance in defending Tunisia’s sovereignty after Israel attacked the Palestine Liberation Organisation headquarters in Hammam Chott, near Tunis, in 1985.
Caid Essebsi, who was foreign minister at the time, pressed the Reagan administration not to veto a UN resolution condemning the Israeli raid. He had in his sleeve a threat to sever relations with the United States in case of a Washington veto. I asked him if Bourguiba’s staunchly pro-Western government of the time was willing to use that card.
“Defending Tunisia’s territorial integrity is not negotiable. We were willing to go as far as that and the Americans understood that,” he explained. The principled stand went a long way towards convincing Washington to abstain during the UN vote censuring Israel.
But the main legacy of Beji Caid Essebsi remains his contribution in advancing the country’s democratic transition. In 2013, the secularist camp was pitted against Islamists in a showdown edging on street confrontation. Tunisians reached the brink of civil strife but then took a step back.
Caid Essebsi eventually reached an understanding with Islamists on political coexistence within the electoral process. As he founded the Nidaa Tounes party, Caid Essebsi led Tunisian moderate secularists to a presidential and legislative elections victory.
Throughout the years, his relationship with Islamists wavered according to tactical moves and shifting alliances but, all through, he kept his eye on the prize, safeguarding the democratic transition not only from the risks of zero-sum game strife but also from the pitfalls of socio-economic failure, terrorist threats, the fraying of authority and political exclusion.
He was proud of the democratic process that earned the country’s civil society a Nobel Peace Prize but he saw democracy always in jeopardy if the young did not have the jobs and opportunities to which they aspired, if state authority eroded to the point of endangering the stability of the country and sapping the confidence and hope of its people or if any segment of the population was left out of the political process. Caid Essebsi opposed all legislative initiatives leading to the exclusion of anyone or any group of people in the fledgling democracy.
Caid Essebsi never wavered in his commitment to building a civil state based on the country’s progressive legacy, which prominently includes equal rights for women. The women of Tunisia showed their appreciation for him with their votes in 2014 and in lining the streets by the thousands on July 27 to bid him farewell.
Caid Essebsi was aware the democratic transition needed nurturing. During an interview with The Arab Weekly this year, the president pinned lots of hope on good voter turnout during the coming elections.
“God willing, there will be a reawakening. I will call on all Tunisians to participate massively in the elections to choose whom they want,” he said.
“Tunisians are politically aware and will assume their responsibility in exercising their right to vote,” he told us.
Now, voters will get a chance at picking the next president earlier than previously scheduled. Only a high voter turnout would cement the democratic edifice that Caid Essebsi worked so hard to build and preserve.
Oussama Romdhani is the chief editor of the Arab Weekly.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.