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Forward-thinking Essebsi stopped short of achieving gender equality in Tunisia

Bernd von Jutrczenka, dpa, AFP | Picture taken on October 30, 2018 shows Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi during a visit at the presidential Bellevue Palace in Berlin.

Beji Caid Essebsi, who came out of retirement to serve as Tunisia’s first democratically elected president after the country’s 2011 revolution, will be remembered as a proponent of equality for women.

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Essebsi was in retirement, having already served his country as minister, ambassador and parliament speaker during the tenures of two autocratic leaders, when a produce vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself and launched the so-called Jasmine Revolution that would end with the resignation of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

Essebsi cut short his retirement at the age of 88 to help shepherd Tunisia’s transition to democracy. As part of the generation of Tunisian leaders who threw off the shackles of French rule in the 1950s, Essebsi was a symbol of stability and had a lifetime of experience.

“When I was there in 2002 to 2006, he was already the wise old man retired from politics,” said Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a former EU ambassador to Tunisia.

After Ben Ali stepped down in 2011, Essebsi was drafted to be the country’s prime minister. He was elected president in 2014. He positioned his centrist Nida Tounes movement as a bulwark against rising Islamic fundamentalism and an antidote to political chaos.

“He was a reassuring figure for Tunisians,” Pierini said.

While his record under previous Tunisian rulers was far from spotless he has been accused of presiding over torture Essebsi’s late-in-life return to politics in the new Tunisia allowed him to focus on change.

As president, Essebsi made equal inheritance rights for men and women his chief cause, despite considerable opposition from many who said that such a law was inconsistent with Islamic principles. Thousands demonstrated against the measure. The proposed law was approved by the cabinet but was never ratified by parliament.

The 2014 constitution enshrined equal rights for women, but did not address the issue of inheritance.

He did manage to push through a law that permitted Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, something prohibited in much of the Arab-speaking world.

His push for equal treatment for women was not the first time Essebsi dared to fly in the face of popular opinion. After Pierini, then EU ambassador, took a vocal stand on human rights in the country, he became persona non grata. Yet Essebsi, already retired, continued to accept the European diplomat’s dinner invitations. “Government ministers would not come anymore but he would come anyway,” Pierini said. “He was far more progressive than average.”

His forward thinking was seen not only in his view on gender equality but also in his willingness to share power with the Islamist Ennahda Party, the major political force after the revolution, an inclusive move that has been credited with facilitating a smooth transition to democracy.

Still, he did not escape criticism, even outside of his envelope-pushing stance on women. Essebsi also came under fire for protecting remnants of the old regime instead of making them answer for previous transgressions.

Pierini sees Essebsi’s return to politics as brave. “He had the courage at a very old age to come back and be at the helm in a situation where, post-revolution, the country was split in two,” he said.

In the end, Essebsi didn’t manage to accomplish all that he had hoped, but Pierini says his legacy is a considerable one nonetheless. “He managed to hold his own and he managed to change things when he was in power,” he said. “Maybe only a few things, maybe too few, but he did.”

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