Caid Essebsi, the lucky old man

Caid Essebsi, the lucky old man
5 min read
23 December, 2014
Staging the political comeback of the century, Essebsi built a political movement that propelled him to the presidency.
At 88 years old, Essebsi has transformed Tunisian politics [Fathi Belaid/AFP]

There is no doubt Mohammad Beji ben Hassouna Caid Essebsi is lucky. The veteran politician has always managed to advance politically after every reverse. These have been many.

Essebsi’s 88 years did not stop him from running for the presidency, and winning it. His age has not made him any less dynamic or active. He is healthy and his age has clearly not dulled his faculties. US President Barack Obama, it is said, once asked him what his secret was. Even though his age has taken a toll , Essebsi is in full control. This is at least part of the secret behind his popularity.

His supporters and the general public call him “Bajbouj”, after his first name “Beji”. He was born into a family closely related to the Husainid Dynasty of Beys that ruled Tunisia for the Ottomans from 1705 until the establishment of the Tunisian republic in 1957. He studied law in Paris, graduating in 1950. He was politically embraced by then-president Habib Bourguiba, who made him an adviser.

In the service of autocrats

Essebsi held a number of ministerial portfolios and ambassadorial posts from the 1960s and on. While this meant he has had a great deal of experience of government, it also means he is associated with the Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regimes, and seen by some to be implicated in the excesses and abuses of those regimes.

Essebsi’s rivals remind people of this. For example, he took the position of State Secretary for National Security after the attempted coup by one of the supporters of Saleh Ben Youssef, Bourguiba’s arch rival. Some insist until now that Essebsi was partially responsible for their torture and abuse in prison, an allegation Essebsi has tried to distance himself from by renouncing all the wrongdoings of that period. He has also held the Interior and Defence Ministry portfolios.

He was more than a mere servant in the Constitutional Liberal Party (CLP). He was known for his strong character and tended to act on his convictions and express his views openly. He took strong positions and clashed repeatedly with the party's leadership.

He was also among the ministers who resigned in solidarity with reformist Minister Ahmed Mestiri after Bourguiba refused the resolutions issued in the party conference in the Tunisian city of Monastir in 1971. The conference witnessed fierce arguments, which enabled liberals to push for reform of the ruling party.

Essebsi then found himself outside the inner circle of power. However, even though his friends continued on the path of political and organisational independence, whether by founding the newspaper al-Rai, which transformed the Tunisian press, or by creating the Socialist Democrat movement, which supported a multi-party system, Beji Caid Essebsi waited for an opportunity to return to the CLP out of loyalty to Bourguiba.

Nevertheless, Essebsi never showed any objection to Bourguiba’s removal from power by Ben Ali, and never showed any inclination to confront this ambitious military man, thirsty for power. On the ccontrary, he accepted the offer to become speaker of parliament, a position created by the new ruler.

However, under Ben Ali, Essebsi moved away from politics and remained in isolation for many years, making appearances only at receptions. When Bourguiba passed away in 2000, he did not attend his funeral, despite his personal connection. Commentators speculated that Essebsi went into isolation because he did not respect Ben Ali. However, he avoided confrontation.

No one could have predicted that a downtrodden young man, Mohammad Bouazizi, would then reopen the path to power for Essebsi. When Mohammad Ghannouchi, who was caretake prime minister for six weeks, failed to secure his hold on power after the overthrow of Ben Ali and was forced to resign by the first and second Qassaba Square sit-ins, acting President Fouad al-Mubaza offered his old friend Essebsi the prime minister's.

Ghannouchi described Essebsi’s return to politics as a flick back in the archives. But Essebsi managed to draw the world’s attention, allowing fair and democratic elections that culminated in the establishment of the National Constituent Assembly. He also handed the government over to the parties of the Troika in a peaceful and civilised way.

Another triumphant return

     Nidaa Tounes quickly grew from nothing to become a political juggernaut.

He returned to isolation. He had no desire to pursue any political ambition, he said. There may have been an arrangement between him and Ennahdha, but whatever this understanding was it did not last long.

Essebsi became popular again but in different political circles. He created a party that could bring back balance to the country after Ennahdha’s rise. When the political possibilities for such a party became obvious, Essebsi started down the path that led him to the foundation of Nidaa Tounes. This quickly grew from nothing to a political juggernaut, defeating Ennahdha in Ocober's elections to become the biggest party in parliament.

When an Essebsi presidency suddenly became likely he once again seemed happy to realise his dream of entering the Carthage Palace as president, rather than as a minister. The old politician now carries the dreams of a revolution carried out by the youth.

However, he will not be able to ignore the fact that times have changed, that the revolution happened, and that almost half those who voted did not vote for him. Millions more did not vote at all. And he cannot ignore the fears many have of the return of the old regime.

After the polling stations closed and signs emerged he had won, Essebsi made sure to to strike a concilliatory note. “For the sake of the future," he said, "I will cooperate with Moncef Marzouki”.

Perhaps his prior decision not to change his place of residence indicates he is trying to avoid what Bourguiba did, insisting on remaining president for life. Only time will tell.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Editor's note: This article was amended on December 24. Mohammad Ghannouchi was not Ennahdha leader. We apologise for any inconvenience.