Tunisia's President Essebsi: controversy, changing allegiances and reforms

Tunisia's President Essebsi: controversy, changing allegiances and reforms
3 min read
25 July, 2019
Tunisia's president was hospitalised with a severe illness in late June and returned to intensive care on Thursday, his son said, before state news agency TAP confirmed his death.

Essebsi was the founder of Nidaa Tounes [Getty]

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi passed away at the age 92 on Thursday, just months prior to elections in November and leaves behind a colourful and sometimes controversial legacy.

The president was hospitalised with a severe illness in late June and returned to intensive care on Thursday, his son said, before state news agency TAP confirmed his death.

The country's first-democratically elected president, Essebsi came to power in 2014 as the leader and founder of the Nidaa Tounes party, three years after revolts were sparked across the Arab World - starting in Tunisia.

The late president was a prominent figure in the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. 

Essebsi also served as foreign minister under state founder Habib Bourguiba before later changing allegiance to Ben Ali, whom he seved as parliamentary speaker and a number of positions linked to the country's feared security services.

Following the dictator's overthrow in 2011 he became prime minister, before being elected as president, and became one of the towering figures in post-revolution Tunisia.

As president, and in stark contrast to Ben Ali, Essebsi had much more limited powers due to newly-instated constitution guaranteeing democratic freedoms. It saw him relinquish day-to-day governing to his prime minister.

While President Essebsi was only responsible for foreign and defence policies during his time as leader, he was head of state during a number of important reforms for Tunisia and the wider region.

In 2018, the Tunisian president celebrated Women’s Day by announcing his intentions to submit a bill to parliament to grant women equal inheritance rights, despite protests from some conservatives.

Essebsi's announcement came after the publication of a report by Tunisia's Commission of Individual Liberties and Equality (COLIBE), which proposes, among other things, the legalisation of homosexuality and making the sexes equal in inheritance matters.

Essebsi said that decriminalisting homosexuality and abolishing the death penalty would be debated neither of which were followed through. LGBT campaigners have complained that gay men and women continue to face harrassment and intimidation from police and the legal system.

Essebsi was president when a law was scrapped that prohibited Tunisian Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men, in what was seen as a significant step in loosening the tight controls over women's life choices.

The government has also visibly taken steps to address the country's epidemic of gender-based violence, passing a landmark law in July 2018 which meant that rapists could no longer escape punishment by marrying their victims. 

Tunisia, whose 2011 revolt toppled longtime dictator Ben Ali and sparked the Arab Spring uprisings, has been hailed as a model of democratisation in the Arab world.

Under Essebsi, the government has been accused of attempting "counter-revolutionary measures", while economic woes and jihadist attacks have destabalised the country.

Prior to this death Essebsi followed the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II and Malaysia’s Tun Mahathir Mohamad as the third oldest world leader.

Essebsi leaves behind his wife and four children.

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