North Africa, West Asia

Will Essebsi reconstruct himself?

Essebsi should take this crucial moment in Tunisian history as an opportunity to reinvent himself, to rise to the many challenges he faces—greatest of which is to unite Tunisians and support the democratic transition.

Anouar Jamaoui
29 January 2015
Beji Caid Essebsi, new president of Tunisia. Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.

Beji Kaid Essebsi, winner of Tunisian presidential election 2014. Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.

The 89 year-old Beji Kaid Essebsi is the dean of Tunisian politicians. He was born during the reign of the Beys of Tunis, witnessed the various stages of the national struggle against French colonialism, and saw the rise of the post-independence state.

While Habib Bourguiba was in office, he assumed key executive responsibilities as the Minister of Interior and the Minister of Defence. Most interestingly, he lived in the era of the repressive state headed by General Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his clique. It was during this subfusc epoch that Essebsi took over the presidency of the Council of Representatives for a short period of time (1989-1991). Only after that experience did he distance himself from the Tunisian political scene.

It is said that he devoted most of his time to enjoying the good life in retirement and managing his private projects. Twenty-two years later, by a happy coincidence interim president Fouad Mebazaa appointed him prime minister.

He came back to the government palace in El Kasbah in the aftermath of the revolution (17 December 2010 - 14 January 2011), when Mohamed Ghannouchi failed to run the country in a transitional and fragile period.

In spite of the tremors, the growing protests, sit-ins, the social demands, the rise of the Salafist movement, and the terrorist attacks that characterized this period, Essebsi relatively succeeded in restoring stability and ensuring a peaceful transition towards the first democratic experience.

When the results of the elections held on 23 October, 2011 were issued, he respected the outcome of the ballot and handed over authority to the Islamists represented by Ennahdah Movement and its allies.

While the three parties making up the Troika, namely, Ennahdah, the Conference for the Republic and the Forum for Labour and Liberties were in power, Essebsi remained a central actor in the new pluralist political scene. He drew benefits from the nascent democratic climate that was the fruit of the Tunisian revolution.

More precisely, he summoned a large number of Bourguibists, many partisans of the Democratic Constitutional Rally, as well a whole host of leftists, liberals, and politically unaffiliated citizens and united them under the slogan "Nidaa Tounes", a banner that he subsequently chose to be the name of the party he founded in March 2012. His long political experience enabled him to quickly establish this newly created party in urban and rural areas. The party won the support of many journalists and influential businessmen.

Essebsi took advantage of the Troika’s errors and failings, especially its inability to combat terrorism, to reduce the rate of unemployment, to accelerate the pace of investment and to improve the country’s foreign relations. He took advantage of all these shortcomings, and presented his political party as the best alternative to the ruling coalition.

His and his followers’ efforts to highlight the failures of the Troika via the media were ultimately productive. Nidaa Tounes took the lead in the October 2014 elections, winning the largest number of seats in the parliament. In December, its leader became head of state, declared victorious by the Independent National Electoral Commission in a fierce competition that brought him face to face with his predecessor, Mohamed Moncef Marzouki.

According to many observers, the mission of the elected president will not be easy given that he faces a variety of individual and objective challenges. Both the acting president and his party must bear the heavy burden of governance in the next phase.

Their duties include accomplishing the promise Essebsi made to the electorate, the promise to restore what he calls ‘the prestige of the state’, and revitalising Tunisian diplomacy, strengthening the partnership between Tunisia and the Mediterranean countries, the European Union, and the Gulf states.

The purpose is to regain the long-lost confidence of investors, so that they once again make Tunisia a primary destination for their fleeing capital. Likewise, Essebsi faces the task of reactivating the role of the army in securing the borders, of preserving the country’s sovereignty, and responding to terrorist attacks that threaten businesses and people alike.

Some observers of the Tunisian political scene argue that Essebsi bears the heritage of a dictatorship, not a democratic experience. He is taken to be unable to construct or sustain democracy or work for its gradual progress. “He who has nothing can give nothing,” so the saying goes.

The proponents of this view base their arguments on the belief that the new president has precedents neither in the acclaimed fight against the repressive state, nor in the defence of the opposition and public freedoms. He is still a symbol of the anachronistic regime reputed for its human rights violations.

Essebsi confronts many thorny questions posed by supporters, opponents, and ordinary citizens: will he reconstruct himself politically? Will he be able to go beyond the past and overcome its tragedies? Will he send reassuring messages to the people? Can he adapt himself to the requirements of the nascent democracy in Tunisia? Will he succeed in erecting the pillars of the Second Republic and in achieving the goals of the revolution of "Employment, Freedom, and National Dignity”? 

To attempt to answer these questions now and here is illogical. It is unsound to make any judgements on the new president before observing his performance in office. Even though his remote past raises much suspicion and provokes fears, there is still some hope in the future.

Essebsi’s presence on the political scene after the revolution has been marked by a high degree of pragmatism, flexibility, and interactive openness to political parties, to the extent that he was lauded for cooperating with leftist and liberal leaders alike during Tunisia’s transitional phase. And he did so in the framework of the political experience that grouped a variety of political parties in the Union for Tunisia and the National Salvation Front.

Most notably, Essebsi cooperated with Ennahdah leader Rached Ghannouchi (during the Paris meeting of 15 August 2013) to end the dual polarization between the Troika and its opponents, in a period when the Bardo sit-in  called for the departure of the coalition government, and the Resistance Rally (2013) threatened to take the country to the brink of armed conflict. He encouraged the Islamists to hand over power in a peaceful manner and convinced them to resort to national dialogue, which paved the way for the technocratic government and the 2014 elections.

At this crucial moment in the history of Tunisia, Essebsi has only two options: the first is to be an honorary President uniting all Tunisians, refusing any encroachment whatsoever of family or political party, rejecting power monopoly, and supporting the democratic transition in the country by giving priority to translating the constitution into a reality that can be felt and experienced by citizens.

This may help him ascend to the status of the spiritual father of the Second Republic. The second option is to be, via certain political choices, the cause of the regression of democracy and the regression of the revolution. Such regression, however, does not seem to be tolerable or even conceivable in the eyes of the free Tunisian citizen today.

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