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Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi Dies; Was Country's 1st Freely Elected Leader

Beji Caid Essebsi, the president of Tunisia, has died. He was elected in 2014 following the Arab Spring uprising.
Sean Gallup
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Beji Caid Essebsi, the president of Tunisia, has died. He was elected in 2014 following the Arab Spring uprising.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi has died at the age of 92. He was the country's first democratically elected leader, coming to power in the wake of the Arab Spring revolution. Essebsi was admitted to a hospital in Tunisia on Wednesday, but officials haven't specified what he was receiving treatment for.

Announcing the leader's death, Tunisia's presidential Facebook page said funeral plans for Essebsi would be announced soon.

Essebsi helped bring stability to Tunisia after a series of street demonstrations ousted former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Tunisia is the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring — the public protests that spread to other countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

"As leader, he relaxed a sweeping inheritance law to improve equality between men and women, and called for Tunisian women to be able to marry non-Muslims," NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports for our Newscast unit.

Earlier this year, Essebsi said he would not run for office again, saying it was time for younger people to step up. Tunisia is scheduled to hold a new election in November.

In Tunisia's reformed government, Essebsi served as interim prime minister before being elected president in 2014. By then, he had already had a long political career, serving for decades under Ben Ali. As NPR's Scott Neuman reported on his election, "Essebsi's support comes from the wealthy coastal regions, and he has used his experience and the prospect of stability to woo voters."

Essebsi led the secular-leaning Nidaa Tounes (Tunisia Calls) party. The Associated Press reports that in the lead-up to his election, Essebsi presented "his centrist movement as a bulwark against rising Islamic fundamentalism and political chaos that rocked Tunisia after the people's revolt overthrew a longtime dictator and unleashed similar movements throughout the region."

After taking up politics in the 1940s, Essebsi later joined the fight for decolonization.

He served under Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, who took power after the country gained independence from France. Essebsi held several senior roles under Bourguiba, including director of security, minister of defense, foreign minister and interior minister.

After retiring from politics in 1994, Essebsi returned to help lead the government in 2011.

Essebsi's reputation took a hit in the wake of the Arab Spring, when Tunisia's Truth and Dignity Commission released its tally of abuses under years of authoritarian rule. He was accused of human rights violations related to the put-down of a coup attempt in 1963, as The New York Times has reported.

The International Center for Transitional Justice said the commission's report referenced Essebsi's tenure as minister of the interior "when torture was rampant."

As president, Essebsi's tenure ushered in political openness and freedom of speech, but he was unable to ease Tunisia's economic problems, which sparked new protests. Earlier this year Essebsi said, "A democracy cannot be built in eight years. Tangible results need time," according to the AP.

In 2018, NPR's Sherlock reportedfrom Tunisia, "One thing everyone does agree on is that freedom of expression is the main reward of the 2011 revolution," but by then, economic problems were prompting strikes and protests.

As Sherlock said in that story, new tensions over poverty, unemployment and other social issues gave rise to a new movement led by young people. In English, Sherlock said, the group's name translates to "What are we waiting for?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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