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Tunisia pays final homage to President Beji Caid Essebsi

Fethi Belaid/POOL/AFP

The funeral for President Beji Caid Essebsi – Tunisia's first democratically leader – was under way on Saturday, with several foreign leaders including France's Emmanuel Macron in attendance. Essebsi will be buried at a family plot in central Tunis.

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Essebsi died on Thursday at the age of 92.

Among those in attendance at his funeral were Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, Algeria's interim President Abdelkader Bensalah and the secretary general of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

Parliament speaker Mohamed Ennaceur, who was sworn in as interim president hours after Essebsi's death in line with the constitution, paid tribute to the late leader describing him as "the architect of national reconciliation".

"He was determined to achieve a successful democratic transition," Ennaceur said.

In his eulogy, Macron expressed the “friendship, affection and respect of the French people” for Tunisia and solidarity at this moment of mourning. He described Essebsi as a “man of battles and of conquests” but also one who showed “strength of character”.

"He taught me a lot," Macron added, saying he felt "a filial connection" with the deceased president.

Addressing Tunisians, he said: “You had a great president, a very great president, who knew how to hold on to both the accumulated wisdom of decades and a youthfulness that ceded nothing."

Guiding Tunisia to democracy

The electoral commission has announced a presidential election for September 15, and a parliamentary vote for October 6.

The coming elections will be the third set of polls in which Tunisians have been able to vote freely since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution.

Mourning Tunisians voiced pride at the measures under way to choose a successor, saying his work guiding the country to democracy after the revolution helped make a peaceful handover of power possible.

Hundreds of women, men and children stood in fierce heat on Friday outside the military hospital where he died, and later watched as his coffin was taken to Carthage presidential palace under heavy security.

Many expressed respect for his role overseeing political reforms in the North African country after the overthrow of long-time autocratic leader Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

"Today we lost a father to all Tunisians," said one onlooker, Salma Hbibi.

"There are no tanks in the streets, no curfew, no statements from the army," she added. "Today we have gained a democratic state through a quiet and wonderful transition.”

Tunisia has been hailed as the only democratic success story of the Arab Spring uprisings, implementing a new constitution, free elections and a coalition government of moderate Islamist and secular parties in a region otherwise struggling with upheaval.

Essebi 'a unifying force'

Reporting from the capital Tunis, FRANCE 24’s Nadia Massih said Essebsi was seen as a “unifying force” by many Tunisians.

He is remembered “as a man who was avowedly a secularist for his entire political career but nevertheless went into a coalition with an Islamist party in order to try and bring the country together after the revolution”, Massih added.

"It was a sad day with the loss of our President Essebsi,” said Moncef Marzouki, a former president and one of Essebsi's most determined rivals.

"But I am also proud of this smooth transition. We are fortunate to be in an advanced path in democracy transition, we are moving to a state of law," Marzouki added.

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

Essebsi rose to prominence after Ben Ali's overthrow, which was followed by revolts against authoritarian leaders across the Middle East including Libya and Egypt.

Drafted in as premier after Ben Ali's fall, Essebsi in 2012 founded the secular Nidaa Tounes party, which is now part of the governing coalition, to counter-balance the resurgence of Islamists who were suppressed under Ben Ali. Two years later, Essebsi became Tunisia's first freely elected head of state.

Political progress

But political progress has not been matched by economic advances.

Unemployment stands at about 15%, up from 12% in 2010 due to weak growth and low investment.

Near Carthage palace, a young man named Nabil expressed the hope that Tunisia will remain on its current path.

"We are deeply saddened, but I hope Tunisia will remain as consistent and cohesive as Essebsi wanted."

"We will miss you, Bajbouj," he said, using Essebsi's nickname.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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