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Beji Caid Essebsi: The Old Guard Member Who Helped Build Tunisia's Democracy

9 MINS READAug 29, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
This photo shows Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who died July 25 at age 92.

A file photo dated Nov. 8, 2018, shows Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi speaking at a press conference in Tunis.

(YASSINE GAIDI/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

By Anne Wolf, for the Project on Middle East Democracy

Tunisia's first freely elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, who passed away on July 25 at age 92, certainly was not a revolutionary, though he did come from the generation of activists that led the fight for independence — decades before Tunisia's Arab Spring protesters were even born. After Tunisia won independence from France in 1956, Essebsi devoted the next phase of his political career to serving the country's first president, Habib Bourguiba, under whom he was interior, defense, and foreign minister. He also briefly worked with Bourguiba's successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who took power in 1987. Both Bourguiba and Ben Ali, of course, were dictators. Essebsi may have thought the height of his career was over by the mid-1990s, when he lost his position as the president of parliament. From a family of notables from Tunis, Essebsi no longer enjoyed the trust of Ben Ali and his relatives, who increasingly pursued a policy of sidelining key figures within the elite to bolster their own power. Officials from the capital city, from where Ben Ali's second wife hailed, and those who had held important posts under Bourguiba were particular targets in their quest for domination.

Like most other figures in the elite who were marginalized under Ben Ali, Essebsi kept his head down throughout the late 1990s and 2000s. He did not want to risk a fallout with Ben Ali and his powerful family. Following the 2011 revolution, though, he claimed he had been an internal regime critic and purposely created distance from Ben Ali — a common legitimation strategy of former officials who served under the dictatorship. This was not the case. Essebsi was a member of the Central Committee of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), the hegemonic ruling party, until he was removed in 2003. At age 76, he must have thought it would not be too bad to retire from political life, or so it seemed at the time.

The Comeback

Then the Tunisian uprising happened, and all cards were reshuffled. It was Fouad Mebazaa — who became the acting president of the country after Ben Ali's ouster on January 14, 2011 — who revived Essebsi's political career and launched what would become his golden time in politics. In February 2011, Mebazaa appointed Essebsi as interim prime minister. Notably, this was not because of Essebsi's own political clout. Rather, it was because previous attempts at forming an interim government had failed to garner popular support, as they had been staffed with well-known officials of the Ben Ali regime. Mebazaa later explained that he had chosen Essebsi because he was little-known to the public at the time, given his political marginalization in the 1990s, but, having himself worked with Essebsi before, Mebazaa was certain he could be trusted. "[Essebsi] was someone who knew the wheels of the state at a time when it was necessary to secure the wheels of the state," Mebazaa affirmed. In addition, Essebsi's participation in the fight for independence bestowed on him a certain degree of legitimacy so that a range of political forces considered him an acceptable leader of the interim government.

Yet if former Ben Ali officials saw in Essebsi a figurehead who would strive to protect their interests, initially they must have felt completely let down. As soon as Essebsi was appointed interim prime minister, he and his cabinet launched a series of wide-ranging political reforms that paved the way for the establishment of Tunisia's democracy, however fragile it remains today. Among other decisions, they banned Ben Ali's secret police, released all political prisoners, and legalized a wide range of political parties. Most notably, this included the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the main political opposition under Ben Ali, whose followers had been severely repressed. And Essebsi set a date for Tunisia's Constituent Assembly elections, in which previous representatives of the RCD — which was dissolved by court order in March 2011 — were not allowed to participate. On October 23, 2011, while Essebsi was serving as interim prime minister, Tunisia held its first free and fair elections ever.

These political reforms occurred in a context in which Tunisia's revolutionary movement was extremely powerful and its activists closely monitored the interim government's policies, which they often felt didn't go far enough. Indeed, relations between Essebsi's cabinet and the revolutionaries were often conflictual and sometimes outright confrontational. In one instance, in May 2011, security forces brutally repressed a crowd of protesters holding anti-government slogans; after an outcry, officials apologized for the violence. Essebsi himself was careful to clearly set his task apart from that of the revolutionaries. He repeatedly stressed that "revolution is not democracy," and clearly viewed his job as solely evolving around the latter objective, that is, the construction of democratic institutions. In this respect, Essebsi was keen to assert, he could be fully trusted as his advanced age — he was 84 at the time — meant that he no longer harbored any political ambitions of his own that he could seek to advance through his rising profile.

Democracy Without Revolution

This, of course, was not quite the truth. Essebsi was just getting started. In April 2012, he co-created the Nidaa Tounes party, of which he became the inaugural president. Nidaa Tounes officials sought to unite a wide range of political forces — including labor union activists, former RCD officials, and leftists — to challenge the perceived hegemony of Ennahda following the October 2011 elections. Arguably, at the time there was political value in gathering a dispersed set of parties into one bloc. But Nidaa Tounes' ideological underpinnings clearly were focused squarely on countering Ennahda, and Nidaa figures increasingly employed violent rhetoric against the Islamists in a manner that was reminiscent of the Ben Ali regime. Matters came to a head in the summer of 2013 following a surge in violence by religious extremists, alongside the military coup in Egypt against Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, a move that many Nidaa Tounes activists were eager to imitate at home. As the crisis risked turning violent and threatening Tunisia's democratic institutions, Essebsi met Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi in Paris to work out a deal to prevent such a devastating scenario from occurring. Although Essebsi has received wide acclaim for going beyond his party's anti-Islamist ideology and agreeing to the meeting, the rhetoric of Nidaa Tounes — and of Essebsi personally — had of course contributed to the escalation of the crisis in the first place.

Ultimately, Essebsi's long political career — not just as an official under the dictatorship, but also as an activist during the fight for independence — was why he managed to build bridges where others failed.

In the lead-up to the 2014 elections, mounting security and economic challenges in Tunisia elevated the profile of Essebsi and other Nidaa Tounes representatives. They asserted that their long experience was needed to gain a grip on the crisis, and they successfully lobbied against the adoption of a political exclusion law which would have criminalized former RCD representatives from running for office. This gave Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes' RCD figures a green light to reassert themselves on the political scene: in the 2014 general elections, Essebsi was elected president and Nidaa Tounes emerged as the strongest parliamentary force. Relations between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda were for the most part cordial during the ensuing four years; they had to work in a coalition together as Nidaa Tounes failed to form a stable ruling coalition on its own. In September 2018, however, Essebsi again adopted a confrontational stance and declared that the "relationship between [him] and Ennahda has ended." Notably, this was no longer simply a strategy to unite anti-Islamist voices and gain votes. Rather, it came in the context of Essebsi's increasingly dominant leadership style and, more specifically, as a response to Ennahda's support of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, a former Nidaa Tounes figure with whom Essebsi had fallen out after Chahed acquired too much independent leverage.

Indeed, though Nidaa Tounes had emerged as the strongest force during the 2014 elections, it quickly became weakened by internal frictions, many of them owing to Essebsi's own running of party affairs. In particular, Essebsi refused to hold internal elections for key Nidaa Tounes positions as this would have threatened the leadership of his son, Hafedh, whom he sought to groom as a successor, even though Hafedh was deeply unpopular among party ranks. In this way, Essebsi ultimately destroyed his own party. Of course, Essebsi's increasingly dominant leadership style was most starkly visible toward revolutionary and new political actors. He blamed the country's mounting economic and security challenges on their political inexperience, a discourse that has in recent years been adopted by wider sections of Tunisian society. Essebsi was a fierce adversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established after the revolution to investigate past state-led human rights abuses. Essebsi — who had headed the defense and interior ministries when some of the abuses occurred — took every opportunity to discredit the commission as biased and called it a political tool for "settling scores."

Ultimately, Essebsi's long political career — not just as an official under the dictatorship, but also as an activist during the fight for independence — was why he managed to build bridges where others failed, but also why, in the eyes of many revolutionary activists, his policies fell so short on so many fronts. Tunisia now has democratic institutions, but they have failed to bring about more fundamental economic and political changes sought by many of those who took to the streets in late 2010 and early 2011. Of course, Essebsi isn't responsible for all the shortcomings of Tunisia's democratic transition. He did not govern alone and many of his policies were formulated in reaction to wider political and economic trends.

Still, no other single official has shaped Tunisia's post-revolutionary transformation as much as Beji Caid Essebsi. Toward the end, his personal ambition (and ambition for his son) got in the way, and he is leaving behind neither a strong party nor a lasting political vision. But, judging from the thousands of people who showed up for his funeral, President Essebsi will always be remembered as the leader who went beyond ideological polarization when it mattered most, and who was there during a critical time in Tunisian history, when many more things could have gone wrong than ultimately did.

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