TUNIS – A long-time member of the elite and a dominant public figure in Tunisia since the country’s independence from French colonial rule, Beji Caid Essebsi, who died on Thursday at the age of 92, will go down in history as the controversial politician who saved the Arab Spring guided the country away from tumult and placed it on the path to democracy.
Born to a wealthy family in November 1926 in the small touristic town of Sidi Bou Said, Caid Essesbi studied law in Paris and, on his return to Tunisia in 1952, joined other lawyers in his support for Neo Destour, a liberal political party that wanted independence from France.
He perhaps inherited his interest in business and politics from his great-grandfather Ismail Caid Essebsi, a Sardinian merchant who was kidnapped in the 19th century by Ottoman pirates.
Sold to a senior local Ottoman official as a slave when Tunisia was still a protectorate of the erstwhile empire, his grandfather embraced Islam and later became a free man, making his way up the social ladder until he reached a government post.
In 1956, Caid Essebsi became an advisor to Habib Bourguiba, a founder of the Neo Destour Party and later leader of the armed resistance that established self-governance in 1955 and full independence from France in 1956.
Bourguiba and his close associates oversaw the creation of the emerging Tunisian republic holding fast to principals of secularism but also professing pan-Arab ideologies, which were in fashion at the time.
The ambitious Caid Essebsi quickly climbed the government ranks and held posts such as the director of national security and later became interior minister in 1965. The Interior Ministry building, located on one of Tunis’ main avenues, was feared by Tunisians at the time.
He left that post to become defense minister in 1969 and then later served as Ambassador to France, where he began to criticize oppression and argued for greater freedoms in Tunisia. He resigned in 1972.
What followed was one of the darkest decades under the Bourguiba presidency (1957-87) as the former resistance leader turned to increasingly authoritarian rule, targeting opposition groups and socialists with repression and systematic imprisonment.
Caid Essebsi only returned to the political frontline in April 1981 as Foreign Minister in Prime Minister Mohamed Mzali’s cabinet.
In 1987, he switched allegiances when Ben Ali ousted Bourguiba in a bloodless coup.
Ben Ali shipped Caid Essebsi out to serve as Ambassador to Germany. He returned in 1991 to serve as President of the Chamber of Deputies under the Ben Ali dictatorship.
Caid Essebsi was an active member of the secret circle conspiring to oust the kleptocracy of the Ben Ali family at the turn of this century.
He laid low during the first few weeks of January 2011 as the revolution that ousted Ben Ali during the so-called Arab Spring got into gear.
Then, on February 27 of that year, in the midst of protests and deadly clashes between police, leftist opposition groups, and Islamists, the erstwhile president, Fuad Mebazaa, named him interim prime minister to replace Rachid Ghannouchi.
The move was not enough to quell the protests and the country entered choppy and unstable waters.
Caid Essebsi made way for Hamadi Jebali in December 2011 after the leader of the Islamist Ennahda Party won the parliamentary elections three months previously.
Two deadly attacks against parliamentarians and left-wing figures in 2013, which were attributed to extremist Islamist groups – some to this day accuse Ennahda – as well as the rise in the radical Islamist Ansar al Islam, put Tunisia’s transition into democracy at stake.
Around that time unions, human rights activists and the lawyers’ association created a national unity movement, which helped keep Tunisia on the path to democracy. Their achievements would later be recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize.
Caïd Essebsi founded Nidaa Tounes, a big tent party, in 2012. It went onto win the legislative elections of October 2014 and then the presidential ballot a month later, and thus Caid Essebsi became the country’s first democratically elected president.
Nidaa Tounes was torn apart by internal division five years after its creation.
During his tenure, Caid Essebsi passed some controversial laws, such as legislation that would allow former members of the regime to return to the political landscape but also liberal ones, relaxing oppressive laws for women and members of the LGBT community.
Tunisia nowadays is embroiled in an acute economic and social crisis, the result of reforms leading to high unemployment, social injustice, and corruption, which is still endemic.
Added to this is the ongoing fragility of the North African country’s national security. In 2015, Tunisia was the scene of three simultaneous terror attacks that killed 72 – 60 foreign tourists and 12 members of the presidential guard.
Married to Chadlia Saida Farha, Essebsi, the third oldest head of state in the world, is survived by two daughters Amel and Salwa, and two sons, Mohamed Hafedh and Khelil.