Béji Caïd Essebsi, President Who Guided Tunisia to Democracy, Dies at 92


President Béji Caïd Essebsi, Tunisia’s first popularly elected head of state, who steered the country through a democratic transition after an uprising that set in motion the Arab Spring of 2011, died Thursday morning in a military hospital in Tunis, the government announced in a statement. He was 92.

In a political career of more than 60 years, Mr. Essebsi was the only senior politician in Tunisia to hold political office under the dictatorships of Habib Bourguiba, who became president after the country gained independence from France, and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ultimately ousted, as well as in the new democracy.

In a tribute to Mr. Essebsi, the government statement called him one of Tunisia’s “greatest men and one of those who contributed the most to building it,” and said he spent his life “fighting for it to become and to remain free, strong, secular, and modern until the end of time.”

Parliament met on Thursday to discuss what comes next. In the interim, the president of the Parliament, Mohamed Ennaceur, will take over the presidency and plans to swear an oath later today, he said in an announcement.

No cause of death was immediately given. Mr. Essebsi was suddenly admitted to the hospital last month for an unspecified illness, sparking rumors then that he had died.

Mr. Essebsi came out of retirement in 2011 to be interim prime minister — until the election of a constituent assembly — after the uprising that ended the 23-year rule of Mr. Ben Ali. The revolt in Tunisia sparked a series of antigovernment protests and rebellions across North Africa and the Middle East that became known collectively as the Arab Spring.

In 2014, Mr. Essebsi became the first Tunisian president elected in a free and fair election. He was in office at his death. This year, he had announced that he would not stand in elections expected in November, saying someone younger should take charge.

Born on Nov. 29, 1926, in Sidi Bou Saïd, a cliff-top village north of Tunis, Mr. Essebsi trained as a lawyer in Paris.

He became a close ally of Mr. Bourguiba, defending him and other detainees during Tunisia’s struggle for independence from France in the 1950s. When Mr. Bourguiba became Tunisia’s first president after independence was obtained in 1956, Mr. Essebsi served as his director of security, interior minister, minister of defense and then foreign minister.

Years later, he was criticized by Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, which was established after the 2010 revolution to investigate abuses during the years of dictatorship. The commission implicated him in human rights violations in 1963, when he was the director of national security and dealing with an attempted military coup against Mr. Bourguiba.

The commission’s report said that Mr. Essebsi had overseen unfair trials of Mr. Bourguiba’s opponents, run by judges who were not independent. A brother of Mr. Essebsi’s, Slaheddine Caïd Essebsi, was also named in the report as being present at the trials as a government-appointed lawyer. Neither man ever commented on the report’s findings.

Throughout his life, Mr. Essebsi remained devoted to Mr. Bourguiba, seeing him as a hero and a guide. He wrote a book about him, “Habib Bourguiba: The Wheat and the Chaff,” that was published in 2009.

Under Mr. Bourguiba’s successor, Mr. Ben Ali, Mr. Essebsi was briefly head of Parliament, but he retired from politics in 1994, before Mr. Ben Ali’s corrupt and increasingly authoritarian government committed its worst excesses, developing a cult of personality and arresting and torturing political dissidents.

When Mr. Ben Ali was overthrown in January 2011 and fled to Saudi Arabia with his family, Mr. Essebsi was named interim prime minister, chosen because of his government experience and his relatively untainted reputation.

As a caretaker leader, he showed an even-handedness in steering the country through its transition to democracy, running fair elections for the constituent assembly and freely handing over power afterward to a government led by the formerly outlawed Islamist party Ennahda.

Mr. Essebsi then helped found a secular political party, Nidaa Tounes, or Call for Tunisia. After two political assassinations in 2013 prompted protests, he led a movement to oust the increasingly unpopular Islamist government.

In contrast to Egypt, where the military seized power and cracked down violently on the country’s elected Islamists, Tunisia managed a negotiated if fractious transfer of power, largely thanks to Mr. Essebsi.

At the height of the tensions, in 2013, as the country teetered on the edge of civil strife, Mr. Essebsi broke the political impasse by holding a series of private meetings with Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, who had returned from years in exile during Mr. Ben Ali’s rule. Mr. Essebsi and Mr. Ghannouchi had continued to meet regularly since then.

For the young revolutionaries who brought down Mr. Ben Ali, Mr. Essebsi represented a return of the old government and of the old ways of doing things. He was criticized for passing a reconciliation law that granted amnesty to former officials and civil servants of the Ben Ali era.

Yet Bejbouj, as his supporters affectionately called him, won the trust of many Tunisians with his call for a strong state and a modern secular society — a prospect that stood in stark contrast to Ennahda’s chaotic rule from 2012 to 2014. He also supported legislation to promote women’s rights, following Mr. Bourguiba’s lead.

“We have managed to initiate a democratic process, which is very rare — we are the only country now like that,” Mr. Essebsi said in a 2015 interview with The New York Times in the ornately tiled presidential palace overlooking the harbor of ancient Carthage.

A diminutive, slightly frail figure who wore suits he no longer quite filled, Mr. Essebsi emerged as a canny politician with the experience and determination to trounce his opponents. He did not take all the credit for the peaceful transition, however.

“We are lucky we do not have a powerful army,” he said.

But he made a democratic solution possible by his readiness, as a convinced secularist, to recognize the Islamists’ right to have a place in Tunisian politics and to engage with them.

“In reality, Ennahda is a party for the political scene that we are in now,” Mr. Essebsi said in the interview.

His party won the most seats in the October 2014 parliamentary election, calling on the electorate to vote tactically against the Islamists. But he then formed a unity government, giving Ennahda one cabinet post.

Mr. Essebsi is survived by his wife, Chadlia Saïda Caïd Essebsi, and four children, among them the politician Hafedh Caïd Essebsi, who assumed leadership of his party.

Still recovering from 60 years of dictatorship, Tunisian society remains deeply fractured. Politically, secularists, including vocal leftists and Arab nationalists, contend with Islamists, who won about 28 percent of the vote in the 2014 legislative elections. Socially, a rich elite living in the coastal cities is divided from the poor, underdeveloped inland regions, where the revolution began and where popular unrest continues.

Mr. Essebsi has called for reconciliation by emphasizing patriotism above party politics. Among the projects he left unfinished were plans for a sculpture of Hannibal in Carthage.

In one of his last speeches, on April 6, during the Nidaa Tounes party congress, Mr. Essebsi spoke for about 40 minutes without notes, directing jibes at Ennahda and making the crowd laugh.

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