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As Tunisia bids farewell to Essebsi, Tunisians mull his legacy

World and Arab leaders flock to Essebsi's funeral, while people in his country's capital reflect on the president's stabilising effect and broken promises
Military officers carry the coffin of late president Essebsi during his state funeral at the presidential palace in the capital's eastern suburb of Carthage (AFP)
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Tunisia bid farewell on Saturday to its late President Beji Caid Essebsi, who died on Thursday at the age of 92.

Attended by French President Emmanuel Macron, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, among other leaders, a state funeral began with the president’s coffin leaving Carthage Palace for Tunis.

In the capital itself, Tunisians have had two days to mull their president’s death, reflecting on Tunisia’s first freely elected president and one of the architects of its post-revolution democracy.

In the days between Essebsi’s funeral and his death, life continued as normal in Tunis. The capital’s streets have been calm and quiet in the afternoon, as many Tunisians prefer to stay indoors to avoid the scorching summer sun.

On Saturday security was at a premium, with authorities loathe to see a repeat of the terror attacks that struck Tunis exactly a month ago, on the same day Essebsi was admitted to hospital for health issues that he eventually succumbed to.

The man who stabilised Tunisia

To some Tunisians, their first freely elected president embodied Tunisia as a model of success - the relatively democratic and stable remnant of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

To others, however, Essebsi is just an exponent of eight years of uninterrupted political impotence, hampering attempts to find a way out of the economic quagmire.

Attempting to summarise the somewhat muted atmosphere, 39-year-old Tunisian Abdelhamid simply said: “People die every day.”

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“To me President Essebsi was a citizen like any other, with his good and bad sides,” Abdelhamid continued outside downtown Tunis’s souk. “He succeeded in holding Tunisia together and preventing a civil war in the fragile context right after the 2011 revolution.”

Abdelhamid noted that a prominent general from Sidi Bouzid, the central Tunisia city that sparked the 2011 revolution, died recently too, without much fanfare.

“Great soldiers and generals who have served their country for years die every day.”

The news is hitting Abdel, who sells soaps, perfumes and bath salts in his small shop nearby, a little harder.

“I still can’t believe it,” the man who is in his 40s said. “Essebsi left a strong imprint on the country. What a loss. He possessed moral leadership and had no equals in Tunisia.”

Mouna, a young woman passing by the souk, described Essebsi as “honest, loyal and straightforward”.

“He was decisive and said the things as they were. That’s what made him a great president,” she tells MEE.

“He was a real statesman with huge prestige and influence on the international stage,” her friend Mokra added. “Beji Caid Essebsi boosted Tunisia’s international reputation. May he rest in peace.”

Signs of a maturing democracy

To some Tunisians, pragmatism and an attempt to ensure continuity in the days after his death are signs of a maturing democracy, and his part in that.

Though election season is fast approaching, politicians have appeared keen to project a sense that Essebsi's death will not create a political crisis or vacuum.

The presidential election has been brought forward to 15 September to ease his succession.

“We lost an icon, an important statesman, but our institutions will ensure continuity,” said Maher, the 49-year-old owner of a perfume and soap shop in the souk.

A man reads a local newspaper, displaying a picture of the late Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunis (Reuters)
A man reads a local newspaper, displaying a picture of the late Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunis (Reuters)

A prominent figure in Tunisian politics since the 60s, Essebsi had held a raft of top offices. He even served as interior minister under Tunisia's first post-independence president Habib Bourguiba in 1965.

“He has sacrificed his life for the country. Essebsi has done amazing things,” Maher said. “With him a generation of Tunisian statesmen dies.”

For Ahmed, a 28-year-old clothes salesman, Essebsi’s ability to create a sense of enduring institutions was part of his success.

“Beji Caid Essebsi changed nothing. And that’s actually a big compliment,” he told Middle East Eye. “We didn’t vote for Essebsi to change anything. In our constitution the role of the president is merely symbolic.”

“Unlike President Sisi of Egypt and other dictators in the region, Essebsi showed respect for democratic rules and norms,” he added.

Empty promises

Tunisia’s 2011 revolution was stoked in part by economic woes and a lack of opportunities for its youth. Essebsi’s failure to address that adequately over the past eight years has been a blot on his record for many young Tunisians.

“A man of empty promises,” Mohammed Ali, 26, labelled the late president.

'All politicians lie and Essebsi was no exception. His death leaves me indifferent'

- Nour, 24

“Nothing has changed. Essebsi has done absolutely nothing,” the young man from south Tunisia’s Gabes added.

“The interior regions are still suffering from poverty and unemployment, and remain the victims of discrimination. No basic infrastructure, no prospects.”

Nour, 24, just wanted to continue shopping rather than embroil herself in Tunisia’s fractured politics.

“I am deliberately distancing myself from politics,” she said. “All politicians lie and Essebsi was no exception. His death leaves me indifferent.”

She will vote in the upcoming presidential election on 15 September and parliamentary polls on 7 October, Nour said, “but out of a sense of duty, not out of conviction”.