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Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi dies aged 92

Fethi Belaid, AFP | File photo of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who died on July 25, 2019, aged 92.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, the country’s first freely and democratically elected president, died Thursday aged 92. A champion of equal rights for women, Essebsi sought to reconcile secularist beliefs with Sharia law.

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The 92-year-old Essebsi died in hospital, where he had been admitted into intensive care with a severe illness.

His death means a planned November presidential election will be brought forward by several weeks, with the country's constitution stating that a new head of state must be chosen within 90 days.

The veteran Tunisian politician was the world’s oldest head of state after Queen Elizabeth and Malaysian President Mahathir Mohamad.

He was elected the fourth president of Tunisia on December 31, 2014, three years after the Arab Spring uprising ousted the long-serving dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

On April 6, 2019, Essebsi announced he would not be seeking a second term in the forthcoming November elections, explaining that it was time to “open the door to the youth”. This announcement came on the heels of protests in neighbouring Algeria, which resulted in President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s April 2 resignation and the end of his 20-year rule.

Early military career

Essebsi showed political leanings early on. Born on November 29, 1926 in Sidi Bou Said to a well-heeled Tunisian family, at the age of 12 he was heavily influenced by the violent riots of April 9, 1938, in which 21 Tunisians died in the name of reforms to end France’s sphere of influence in Tunisia.

Later, Essebsi would become active in the socialist, pro-independence Néo-Destour party. Its leader and founder Habib Bourguiba was a vocal advocate for the removal of French rule who had been instrumental in the April 9 protests. While studying law in Paris, he became a great admirer of Bourguiba’s teachings, which formed Essebsi’s beliefs in Tunisian independence from French rule.

His first political forays could be traced back to his Parisian student years; he became vice president of the Association of North-African Muslim Students, as well as an active member of the resistance against French colonial rule.

Bourguiba’s right-hand man

Essebsi returned to Tunis after completing his studies and embarked on a legal career. After Tunisia’s independence in 1956, Essebsi truly came into his own politically.

When his idol Habib Bourguiba became president of Tunisia in 1957, Essebsi was appointed director of national security. He rose through the ranks to hold several prominent positions, including minister of the interior and minister of defence.

He briefly served as ambassador to France in 1970 before returning to a law career. In 1981, he re-entered Tunisian politics with his appointment as minister of foreign affairs before taking up the post of ambassador to West Germany in 1987.

The Ben Ali years

A coup d’état on November 7, 1987 saw Bourguiba replaced by his own prime minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Under the latter’s rule, Essebsi continued to serve at high levels of government, including posts as minister of the interior and president of the Tunisian national assembly.

After the Arab Spring of 2011, Essebsi became interim prime minister on February 27 of that year, leaving the post on December 24 to be replaced by Hamadi Jebali.

In 2012, he formed his own political party, Nidaa Tounes -- a diverse party made up of business leaders, intellectuals, unionists, and leftist militants as well as members of the old regime who were allied with the Islamist Ennahdha movement. In 2014, just two years after the party’s creation, Nidaa Tounes swept the legislative elections, which paved the way for Essebsi to run for president.

Playing off his image as a wise elder, he defeated incumbent Moncef Markouzi to become the nation’s fourth president, and its first democratically elected one. Essebsi led Tunisia towards numerous reforms, including gender equality and election reform. His death leaves the presidency vacant at a time of increasing tensions for Tunisia.

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