In the aftermath of the death of Tunisia’s fifth President, Beji Caid Essebsi, a reflection on his life, his rule and his legacy is probably the best way to foresee the impact of his loss on Tunisia’s political system.
Born to a beylical aristocratic family in 1926, Beji Caid Essebsi attended the elitist Sadiki College in Tunis. After his graduation from the Paris Law Faculty (Sorbonne), he quickly integrated the highest circles of the post-colonial Tunisian state. The thirty years of political experience he spent within the closest circles of Habib Bourguiba made of him a disciple of Tunisia’s first president.
After disappearing from the political scene in the early 1990s, under Ben Ali’s rule, he came back to the public sphere in February 2011, two months after the beginning of the revolution. Since his first public appearance, Essebsi managed to use the image of Bourguiba to gain the sympathy of the elderly, nostalgic to the pre-Ben Ali era as well as an important section of Tunisia’s youth for whom the image of Bourguiba was shaped by the glorifying narrative transmitted from one generation to another.
Through the adoption of the Tunisian dialect in official speeches, the use of proverbs and the imposition of an authoritative way of interacting with others, Essebsi was able to sell himself as the reincarnation of Bourguiba in a time of uncertainty. He was seen by many as the savior from the Islamist threat coming mainly from Ennahda. Reacting to the rise of socially conservative political actors whose political discourse emphasizes the primacy of a traditionalist conceptualization of the “Arabo-Islamic” identity, urban elites started seeing Essebsi as the protector of the Tunisianité: an exceptionally modern lifestyle fashioned as a European one, but still embedded in the historical and geographic specificities of the Tunisian coastal areas. More importantly, a larger proportion of the society saw Essebsi as the one who would rehabilitate the Haybat al-dawlah, commonly translated as “the state’s prestige”.
The revolutionary action, the terrorist attacks and the neoliberal policies weakened state institutions built during the first decades of Bourguiba’s rule. The reincarnation of Bourguiba, the founder of the state, and of the nation, in the body of one of his disciples would thus be the solution to Tunisia’s contemporary problems. When Essebsi created his party, Nidaa Tounes, many saw it as a strong come-back of Bourguibism. But once he became president of the Republic, it became clear that Bourguibism was far from being in revival.
Today’s casual commentators on Tunisian politics tend to talk about Bourguibism as a doctrine or a set of ideas that defined Bourguiba’s positions regarding different topics in a clear manner. However, Habib Bourguiba himself would disagree with this definition of Bourguibism. In a 1965 speech, he made clear that Bourguibism is first of all a “method” of action leading to a clear and fixed goal. This strategy is also reflected in Bourguiba’s foreign policy, mostly in the solution he suggested to the colonization of both Palestine and Algeria, when he recommended a long-term step-by-step strategy for the acquisition of independence, instead of rapid revolutionary tactics of decolonization.
The core element of Bourguiba’s method is the gradual approach to change. He is not a supporter of radical or revolutionary transformations. The progress towards a longterm goal requires moderate, realistic and achievable intermediary goals. Such a strategy could only advance within the frame of a hegemonic “destourian socialism” : a nationalist version of state-capitalism adapted to the context of post-colonial state-building, characterized by a centrally-planned economy and an authoritarian one-party political system.
In the Bourguibist way of thinking, the whole nation should be disciplined, and united around the paternalist leader, in order to advance steadily towards a common goal. Class and faith-based forms of societal antagonism were rejected in order to serve the shared interests of the Tunisian collective, as imagined and defined by Bourguibist elites. Both Islamism and communism were seen as threat to the national unity, thus, their repression was seen as legitimate.
When Essebsi rose to power after the fall of the Ben Ali regime, he tried to resuscitate the Bourguibism that died since the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) broke the national unity, and the Structural Adjustment Program destroyed the post-colonial statism. The result was a hollow discourse using Bourguiba’s image in a reactionary way to preserve the power of the part of the nationalist elite to which Bourguiba belongs as well as the infrastructure reproducing it. Branded as “neo-Bourguibism”, Essebsi’s political line ended up taking the form of a conservatism opposed to the change brought by the revolution, and supportive of the perpetuation of lawless order.
As a former National Security director, then Minister of Interior and Minister of Defense, Beji Caid Essebsi was much more familiar with the governmental aspect of Bourguibism than the developmental one. Even though he wanted to take some distance from the the authoritarian aspect of Bourguibism in “Le bon grain et l’ivraie”, an autobiographical narrative about his experience under Tunisia’s first President, he remains much more attached to his idea of mass discipline than to the socio-economic transformation of the society.
Unlike Bourguiba’s despotic state authority used as means to achieve a long-run goal, Essebsi’s idea of Haybat al-dawlah is a goal in itself. Since the first weeks after his appointment as Prime Minister in March 2011 by his former colleague from the Ministry of Interior, President Foued Mbazaa, he ordered the repression of the third round of El-Kasbah sit-in to save Haybat al-dawlah. Similarly, as president, he deployed the army to secure the production sites controlled by El Kamour protesters and threatened to “use force if necessary”. After a military defection, it was the National Guard who undertook the repression of the movement. He failed, however, to crack down on Islamists in the way his party promised during the 2014 elections. By alienating both supporters and opponents of authoritarianism, he ended up with a popularity below 2%. Yet, his positive engagement with the G7+6 allowed him to increase his popularity among international actors.
Essebsi was undeniably a central element of the Tunisian political system. He played a key role in stabilizing the political environment by slowing down the dynamic process of elite circulation accelerated since the revolution. Instead of repressing the Islamists of Ennahda and simply replacing them by the old-guards in the way Sisi did in Egypt, Essebsi was wise enough to be more moderate in his approach.
Because of external constraints and personal preferences, he limited himself to the adoption of reconciliation law, giving immunity to Ben Ali’s corrupt circles, the protection of the archives from the transitional justice process, and finally the revitalization of the security capabilities. At the end of his mandate, Essebsi was able to accomplish his self-assigned mission. Old and new elite networks are finally able to merge and interact dynamically without his direct mediation. Nidaa Tounes will undoubtedly be affected by the loss of its founder. Yet, the smooth transition of power that followed the death of Beji Caid Essebsi and the prompt resumption of peaceful competition between the different political actors, including the remaining heirs of the “neo-Bourguibism” discourse, shows that the Tunisian Republic can, once again, survive the loss of its president.