Thousands of Tunisians mourn country’s first directly elected president

Thousands of Tunisians mourn country’s first directly elected president
Thousands of Tunisians, as well as international heads of states, have attended the funeral of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who died on Thursday aged 92.
4 min read
27 July, 2019
Thousands of Tunisians lined the route of Essebsi's funeral procession

The funeral of Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi took place in Tunis on Saturday as the North African nation gears up for snap elections as early as September to defend the democratic gains of the Arab Spring.

Essebsi, the country's first head of state elected in nationwide polls, died Thursday at the age of 92. Tunisia is seen as a rare success story of democratic transition following the Arab Spring uprisings.

Thousands of mourners lined the 20-kilometre (12-mile) road from the presidential palace in Carthage, where the body was laid in state, to the Djellaz cemetery in southern Tunis where Essebsi was to be buried.

Officers in full uniform carried the coffin draped in the Tunisian flag into a ceremonial room at the Carthage palace packed with dignitaries, placing it on a dais.

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

"He was determined to successfully achieve democratic transition," in the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Essebsi's widow and tearful family members were flanked by Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim ben Hamad Al-Thani, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, French President Emmanuel Macron, Spain's King Felipe VI, and other world leaders.

Macron hailed a leader who "in these times of threatening obscurantism... was keen on keeping Tunisia enlightened, tolerant and committed to univeraal values."

Large crowds of Tunisians packed the cemetery for the final farewell to Essebsi, whose death coincided with the 62nd anniversary of the proclamation of a republic in the North African country.

The interior ministry said it was deploying a large number of security forces to guarantee a smooth ceremony, adding however that it would respect "spontaneous gatherings by citizens".

Power struggle

Essebsi is the first president to receive a state funeral since Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956 and the government has declared seven days of mourning.

The country's first president Habib Bourguiba was buried in a hasty ceremony in 2000 during the reign of his successor, the now ousted autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who lives in exile in Saudi Arabia.

Following Ben Ali's departure, Essebsi founded the secularist Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunis) party, which he led to victory at the polls in 2014.

The party formed a coalition with the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha, which lasted four years before the two parties split.

Essebsi's death comes amid a power struggle between Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and the president's son, Hafedh Essebsi, that has led to the premier being sidelined from Nidaa Tounes to form his own rival party, Tahia Tounes.

A member of parliament from the Tahia Tounes told The New Arab, "President Essebsi was an excellent statesman. He rescued Tunisia and made it safe and contributed to creating the necessary political balance after the revolution, through the accord that he built."

She added that the unity shown by Tunisians in mourning Essebsi should stay in place. Currently there is a debate over who will be able to stand in the presidential election which the electoral commission said could "probably" be held on September 15, two month earlier than planned.

Under the constitution the interim president has 90 days to organise elections.

'Peaceful transfer of power'

Essebsi, whose health deteriorated in the past few weeks, has left behind unfinished business.

Top of the list is a constitutional court that has yet to be set up eight years after the Arab Spring, and an unprecedented bill which if passed by parliament would have given women inheritance rights equal to men.

He has also neither rejected nor enacted an amended electoral code passed by parliament in June that would bar the way for several presidential candidates, including media magnate Nabil Karaoui.

Despite the uncertainty, Chahed hailed a "peaceful transfer of power", while interim leader Ennaceur vowed that "the state will continue to function".

Tunisia's Arab Spring saw a series of democratic reforms even as the North African country battled political unrest, a sluggish economy and Islamist extremist attacks, which exacted a heavy toll on the key tourism sector.