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Obituary: Beji Caid Essebsi, champion of Tunisian democracy and women's rights

Tunisia's first freely elected president will be remembered as a pivotal figure in his country’s occasionally tumultuous recent history

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who died on Thursday at the age of 92, will be remembered as a pivotal figure in his country’s occasionally tumultuous recent history, playing crucial roles in public life both before and after its revolution of 2011.

As Tunisia’s first freely elected president, Caid Essebsi’s achievements were many. However, his unwavering commitment to maintaining the democratic transition promised in 2011 will likely prove his lasting legacy.

Tunisia's post-uprising challenges were numerous, including a flatlining economy, endemic unemployment and terrorism both at home and abroad. Despite criticism of some of the hardline measures introduced under his brief premiership in 2011, Caid Essebsi's sincerity in securing a durable and working democracy for Tunisia was rarely questioned.

Perhaps chiefly, Caid Essebsi will be remembered for his championing of women’s rights. Despite significant resistance from the more conservative elements of society, Caid Essebsi backed laws allowing Tunisian women to marry outside of their faith and, in 2018, vowed to secure equal inheritance rights for both men and women.

Born in the prosperous Tunis suburb of Sidi Bou Said in 1926, Caid Essebsi’s remarkable 77 years in political life encompassed service to four presidents since the country won independence in 1956 and senior posts in various governments.

However, it was his proximity to the country’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba, a connection Caid Essebsi was keen to underscore during his 2014 presidential campaign, that was to prove most memorable.

Following his training as a lawyer in Paris, Caid Essebsi was to prove a key defender of Bourguiba’s Neo Destour activists up until Tunisia’s independence in 1956. After serving in various positions during the early years of independence, he was appointed interior minister in 1965, a position he held for four years. He was appointed ambassador to France in 1970, from where his advocacy for greater democratic reform led to his resignation and ultimate return to Tunis two years later.

He returned to politics the following decade, serving as foreign minister until 1986 and going on to other prominent positions both at home and abroad after Ben Ali assumed the presidency from Bourguiba in 1987.

In the chaotic aftermath of the 2011 revolution, Caid Essebsi was briefly appointed interim prime minister in 2011, before continued violent resistance against the interim government, popularly perceived to be made up of Ben Ali allies, led to his resignation shortly after the elections of October 2011.

Despite his age, caid Essebsi was determined to return to frontline politics, founding the secular Nidaa Tounes in 2012 and going on to win the presidency in 2014, a position he held until his death.

He leaves behind him his wife of 61 years, Chadlia Saïda Farhat and four children.

Updated: July 25, 2019 03:33 PM

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