Essebsi, pillar of Tunisia's old guard, spies a comeback

Essebsi, pillar of Tunisia's old guard, spies a comeback
Beji Caid Essebsi, the head of Nidaa Tounes, is likely to play a significant role in Tunisia's future following his party's showing in the parliamentary elections.
4 min read
28 October, 2014
Beji Caid Essebsi heads the Nidaa Tounes party (AFP/Getty)
Beji Caid Essebsi is making a comeback.

The 87-year-old was a pillar of Tunisian politics under the country's first president and his dictatorial successor. And now, after his Nidaa Tounes party won Sunday's parliamentary election, the sun is shining once again on Essebsi.

But while he served as premier after the 2011 overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and led the country towards free elections, his detractors accuse him of wanting to take Tunisia back to the old ways.

He was born on November 29, 1926, in Sidi Bou Said, a northern suburb of Tunis most famous in recent years for being the site of Mohamed Bouazizi's self immolation and the birthplace of the Arab Spring. He studied law in Paris and began practising in 1952.

Following independence from France in 1956, he became an adviser to the country's founding father and first president, Habib Bourguiba, holding a number of key jobs under him before serving under Ben Ali.

He was director general of the national police force and interior minister. He later held the defence portfolio before being made ambassador to France. After a subsequent posting as ambassador to Germany, he served as foreign minister.

He also served in parliament, holding the speakership in 1990 and 1991.

When Ben Ali stepped down on 14 January, 2011, and fled into exile, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi declared himself president. But just a day later, parliament speaker Fouad Mebazaa took the reins of power.

Ghannouchi remained premier for another six weeks, before Mebazaa called on Essebsi to replace him and head an interim government until elections for a constituent assembly were held.

Those polls, in December 2011, were won by the Islamist party Ennahdha, and new interim president Moncef Marzouki appointed Ennahdha's Hamadi Jabali to replace Essebsi.

This weekend, three years later, Nidaa Tounes emerged as the winner in parliamentary elections, with Ennahdha coming in a close second.

With neither of the two parties having won an outright majority, political horse-trading has begun, and Essebsi will be undoubtedly a key player behind the scenes.

Running 'if still alive' 

Essebsi has already announced his candidacy for the presidential election to be held on November 23, and is considered to be a front-runner.

His critics question his advanced age - and he himself has said he would stand in the election if he were "still alive".

They also argue that he does not represent the country's youth, who spearheaded the revolt that drove Ben Ali from power.

Formed only two years ago, Nidaa
     What separates us from those people [Islamists] is fourteen centuries.
- Beji Caid Essebsi
Tounes rapidly emerged as the principal opposition to Ennahdha, which it has accused of taking the country backwards.

Nidaa Tounes is a varied collection of business people, intellectuals, trade unionists and hardline leftists, as well as people aligned with the ancien regime, all united in their opposition to the Islamists.

"We want a 21st century state, a progressive state," Essebsi has said. "What separates us from those people [Islamists] is fourteen centuries."

But Essebsi has nonetheless acknowledged Ennahdha as part of Tunisia's political life, and his party does not rule out a potential government coalition.

Despite its election success, the party's detractors say that it lacks any real political programme and exists merely as a vehicle to get Essebsi elected.

Whatever the case, Essebsi is a shrewd politician whose communications style is to mix Quranic verses with old Tunisian proverbs.

During the campaign he was taken to task for the way he responded to criticism by a female Islamist member of the constituent assembly.

"She's just a woman," he said, explaining later that he said that out of gallantry, not wanting to criticise a woman.

"No one can doubt the fact that I consider Tunisia's women to be the guarantors of the democratic process. And I am one of those who participated in the liberation of women by Bourguiba." Tunisia's first post-independence president introduced what is widely believed to be the most liberal legislation on women's rights in the Arab world.

Essebsi is married and has two sons and two daughters.