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The legacy of statesman Beji Caid Essebsi, who guided Tunisia through revolution

Published: Updated:

Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s first democratically elected president, died on Thursday at the age of 92 after being admitted into intensive care, his office announced.

Born in 1926, Essebsi was the world’s second oldest head of state after Queen Elizabeth II. His presidency, which lasted from December 2014 until his death, was the pinnacle of a long and varied career in government, during which he served as foreign minister from 1981 to 1986 and interim prime minister in 2011 following the revolution.

Essebsi’s origins can be traced back to Sardinia, Italy, a Mediterranean island just north of what is now Tunisia. His Sardinian great-grandfather, Ismail Caid Essebsi, was abducted by Tunisian pirates near the island’s shores in the early 19th century. In Tunisia he served as “supervisor of tobacco” in the royal court, in charge of procuring and serving tobacco at the bey’s evening social gatherings. Gradually, Ismail rose through the ranks in the palace, becoming protocol manager to the bey and marrying his niece, Fatima Beya.

Generations later, the Tunisian president would inherit as a surname the designation that Ismail acquired as a result of his humble beginnings – Essebsi, which translates from the Tunisian dialect of Arabic to “the act of rolling tobacco.” His given name, meanwhile, is derived from the site of his birth: The shrine of the Sufi holy man Abu Sabid al-Baji in the cliff-top Tunisian village of Sidi Bou Said.

Essebsi’s Sufi background had an important bearing on his political career, during which he maintained ties to Islamist political groups despite the deeply secular environment cultivated by his predecessor as president, Moncef Marzouki. He was open to dialogue with the Islamist parties that were mobilizing in Tunisia in the 1970s.

Over the course of his time in government, Essebsi held a miscellany of posts including adviser to President Habib Bourguiba, director general of the national police, interior minister, and defense minister, briefly going on political hiatus beginning in the early 1970s. He returned in the 1980s to an official capacity in government as the foreign minister under former President Mohamed Mzali.

When an IMF-imposed austerity program led to a rise in the price of bread at the end of 1983, a series of violent demonstrations took place in Tunisia. Hundreds were killed in the bread riots when Bourguiba ordered the protestors to be put down, and several ministers were forced to step down from their posts.

The 1984 bread riots set the stage for a constitutional coup staged by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 1987 to oust Bourguiba, during which Essebsi switched his allegiance to Ben Ali.

Essebsi’s appointment as the Ambassador to Germany following Ben Ali’s presidency strengthened the relationship between Tunisia and Germany. The ties between the two countries have remained solid following the 2011 revolution with Germany acting as one of Tunisia’s biggest supporters.

In 2011, Essebsi was elected as speaker of parliament for three years. When his term ended, he decided to retire from politics. But with the advent of the Libyan revolution, he was back again, believing that Muammar Qaddafi would attempt to help Ben Ali return to power.

Essebsi founded the socialist democratic Nidaa Tounes a year later, signaling the break in his ties with the Islamists. It was Tunisia’s first opposition party, and while Essebsi was a significant opposition figure in the North African country’s political history, he consistently remained within the realm of the ruling establishment.