Tunisian President, Leading Figure in Shift to Democracy, Dies at 92

Beji Caid Essebsi, hospitalized late last month, was the country's first directly elected head of state since the 2011 overthrow of autocrat Ben Ali

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Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi speaks during a news conference at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, Tunisia, November 8, 2018.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi speaks during a news conference at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, Tunisia, November 8, 2018.Credit: Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

Tunisia's 92-year-old president, Beji Caid Essebsi, who helped guide the North African country's transition to democracy after a 2011 revolution, has died, the presidency said on Thursday.

A leading figure in the country's fortunes since 2011, Essebsi was hospitalized late last month for a week after suffering what authorities described as a severe health crisis.

"On Thursday morning, the President of the Republic died at the military hospital in Tunis...The burial ceremony will be announced later," a presidency statement said.

>> Read more: In Tunisia, the revolution succeeded - but where is the dignity? | Analysis

The speaker of parliament, Mohamed Ennaceur, said he would be the country's temporary president, in line with the constitution. In a speech on national television, Ennaceur also called for unity following Essebsi's passing.

The prime minister declared seven days of national mourning. A source said Ennaceur's swearing in would take place at 1300 GMT.

Essebsi had been a prominent politician in Tunisia since the overthrow of veteran autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, which was followed by uprisings against authoritarian leaders across the Middle East, including in nearby Libya and Egypt.

Drafted in as prime minister in 2011 after Ben Ali was toppled, Essebsi was elected president three years later, becoming the country's first directly elected head of state after its "Arab Spring" uprising.

Parliamentary elections are expected to be held on October 6, followed by a presidential vote, which was slated for November 17 but will be brought forward due to Essebsi's death, Tunisia's electoral commission said. They will be the third set of polls in which Tunisians have been able to vote freely following the 2011 revolution.

The presidency statement called on Tunisians to unite and safeguard their country's present and future.

Strong state

"After the revolution, the president led the people to avoid confrontation and led the democratic transition and was keen to build and complete the constitutional institutions," it said.

Kuwait's emir and Saudi Arabia's king listen to Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi during a group photo session ahead of an emergency Arab summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May 30, 2019.Credit: Amr Nabil/AP

Analyst Ibrahim Ouslati said the death of Essebsi, one of the world's oldest leaders, was not likely to disrupt politics.

"I don't think there will be any problem because Tunisians have a constitution that clearly shows that the speaker of the parliament occupies the position temporarily," he said.

"Politically, there will be no problem. The political elite has enough awareness to manage it wisely like any democratic country."

Tunisia has been hailed as the only democratic success of the Arab Spring uprisings, with a new constitution, free elections and a coalition government with secular and moderate Islamists in a region otherwise struggling with upheaval.

But political progress has not been matched by economic advances. Unemployment stands at about 15 percent, up from 12 percent in 2010, due to weak growth and low investment.

Essebsi's death comes at a time of fresh attempts to replace dictatorships with democracy in the Middle East.

The armed forces of neighbouring Algeria and Sudan ousted long-serving rulers of those countries after mass protests. But it remains unclear whether greater freedoms will result.

Rached Ghannouchi, the influential leader of Tunisia's moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, said Essebsi was credited with leading a smooth transition to democracy by promoting inclusive politics.

Essebsi faced criticism that he was seeking a return to a strong state with power concentrated in the presidency, whose role is limited to foreign and defence policies under the new constitution.

Critics also accused Essebsi of attempting a dynastic handover, rowing back on post-revolution freedoms, and failing to support a truth commission seeking justice for the victims of authoritarian rule.

Tunisia has been spared much of the violence seen elsewhere in the Middle East since 2011, although it has been the target of militant Islamists over the years.

Government troops have been battling militant groups in remote areas near the border with Algeria, while high unemployment has also stoked unrest in recent years.

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