Tunisia’s President Beji Caïd Essebsi died last Thursday in a military hospital in the capital Tunis. He was 92 years old and had been in ill health. Within hours, the parliamentary Speaker was sworn in as Interim President until an election can be held, in line with the Tunisian constitution.
Social media has been flooded with tributes to Essebsi. One person described him as “Tunisia’s saviour” for his post-Arab Spring role. World leaders also joined in, heaping praise on the dead President. His French counterpart, Emanuel Macron, who attended the funeral along with his predecessor François Hollande, said that Essebsi was “a man of battles and of conquests.”
Macron would have done us all a favour by naming one such battle. His tribute was just one example of the former President being credited with almost everything that Tunisia has achieved since the ousting of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali eight years ago.
The death of Essebsi is indeed a milestone in Tunisia’s recent history, but not for the reasons that the eulogies would have us believe. He was, of course, the first elected president of the North African country and its first to die in office and to be honoured with a state funeral. Habib Bourguiba, the first leader of independent Tunisia and the architect of its modernity, did not have such an honour; he died while in enforced retirement when Ben Ali took over on 7 November 1987, after serving for just one month as prime minister. Ben Ali himself fell victim to the “Arab Spring” and has sought refuge in Saudi Arabia since 14 January 2011.
If anyone deserves praise for whatever Tunisia has achieved over the past eight years, though, it is the Tunisian people and Essebsi’s mentor Bourguiba. It was the latter who laid the foundations of today’s relatively modern state, while the people, particularly the youth who suffered from unemployment and police brutality, led the revolt against Ben Ali. The bloodshed in neighbouring Libya and Syria made Tunisians scared about going along that road. Instead, they found refuge in the state that Bourguiba built.
In the aftermath of the uncertainty accompanying the Arab Spring — which started in Tunisia — the Tunisians felt lost. There was a lack of popular figures to lead the nation out of the chaos, while untested political forces were fighting for their share of the spoils. Tunisian Islamists, banned and with their leaders imprisoned or in exile, saw an opportunity and grabbed it. Leftists and patriotic forces, in total disarray, failed to offer badly needed wisdom and capable leadership. This left the door open for the old guard to come forward after changing their political mask and joining the leaderless revolution. Public self-doubt and fear of the unknown among ordinary Tunisians opened the way for the likes of Essebsi to make a comeback without any questions about their past being asked, thanks to a partial and ambiguous national reconciliation process which only scrutinised the Ben Ali era and forgiving everything else.
While the revolt against Ben Ali was the work of leftists and trade unions, the Islamist opposition Ennahda Party led by Rached Ghannouchi gained a strong foothold and immediately became a mainstream political party at the expense of everybody else. Ghannouchi is an open minded Islamist and skilful politician, as well as a pragmatist who tested the turbulent political waters in the country. Leftists and the powerful Tunisia General Labour Union lost ground despite being the leading force in the Tunisian Revolution.
The country was sliding into chaos as the Ben Ali security apparatus temporarily lost ground, disliked by the majority of Tunisians. In a way, though, it was that security apparatus which saved the country from further turmoil.
Uncertainly breeds fear, and fearful people seek assurances from wiser and more experienced politicians of Essebsi’s kind. As a pragmatist and political survivor he agreed to take over as prime minister for a transitional period of ten months ending in December 2011 despite already being in his eighties. It was his ego that made him reappear on the political scene, disrupting the revolutionary momentum and literally distancing the very people who led it, the young.
This said a lot about Essebsi’s personality and passion for power, despite having his fair share of it ever since the country gained independence from France in 1956. It also tells us that he jumped unashamedly at any opportunity that came his way even though Tunisia at that point was eager for change, synonymous with the revolution, for which young people had paid with their blood.
In the process, Essebsi abandoned his principles and moulded himself into a new political leader. Instead of reviving his cherished Destour political party, in which Bourguiba had mentored him, he founded Nidaa Tounes as his vehicle of choice to return to power. Nidaa Tounes is now in disarray after it became clear that it was tailored to suit Essebsi. It is doubtful if the party can hold itself together now that he is gone.While no one disputes Beji Caid Essebsi’s national credentials, his patriotism and his loyalty to Tunisia, many blame him for helping indirectly to derail the revolutionary momentum that prevailed after Ben Ali fled the country. Such a process could and should have furnished a new class of political leaders truly reflective of the poor, young and unemployed Tunisians who led the uprising. Apart from holding free elections, Tunisia did not change much from the country that Bourguiba founded and Ben Ali inherited. It is unfair to credit Essebsi with the elections which he contested like all of the other candidates.
Libyans will always remember the then Prime Minister Essebsi as the man who opened southern Tunisia to French and Qatari Special Forces to help the NATO-backed rebels in western Libya in 2011. Remada Military Airbase in Tataouine Governorate was the main base for their operations in western Libya following a hasty decision by the government in Tunis that failed to consider the consequences for Tunisia itself as well as the wider region. Far from gaining anything, Tunisia lost a lot, given that Libya has long been an economic outlet for Tunisia’s southern provinces.
A former French Special Forces colonel, speaking to me on condition of anonymity in 2013, described how the French and Qataris had free access to Libya under the watchful eyes of the Tunisian security services, particularly at the Wazin-Dehiba border crossing. From there they supplied the rebels fighting the Libyan government under NATO air cover with everything they needed.
After Essebsi became President in 2014, nationalist and pan-Arab Tunisian activists hoped that he might take the courageous step of restoring relations with Syria, but he refused. Thousands of Tunisian jihadists travelled to Libya and Syria during his presidency.
It is customary for platitudes to be expressed in eulogies when prominent people die; we should not, it is believed, speak ill of the dead. However, having some facts in the mix would not hurt anyone; on the contrary, it would allow a much more accurate record of, in this case, Essebsi’s time as President of Tunisia to emerge. The reality is that he was hardly the “saviour” of Tunisia at all.