Tunisia’s president, 92, dies in hospital

Essebsi was the first democratically elected president of Tunisia. (File/AFP)
Updated 26 July 2019

Tunisia’s president, 92, dies in hospital

  • The speaker of parliament will serve as a president temporarily
  • The presidential office announced Essebsi's burial ceremony will take place Saturday

TUNIS: Tunisia’s 92-year-old president, Beji Caid Essebsi, who helped guide the north African country’s transition to democracy after a 2011 revolution, has died, the presidency said on Thursday.

A leading figure in the country’s fortunes since 2011, Essebsi was hospitalized late last month and spent a week in hospital after suffering what authorities described as a severe health crisis.

“On Thursday morning, the President of the Republic died at the military hospital in Tunis ... The burial ceremony will be announced later,” the presidency said in statement.

It was later confirmed on Thursday that Essebsi's burial will take place on Saturday.

According to the constitution, the speaker of parliament will temporarily serve as president.

Tunisia’s Independent Electoral Commission said that a presidential election that was scheduled for November 17 will now take place on September 15 instead. 

Essebsi has been a prominent politician in Tunisia since the overthrow of veteran autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, which was followed by uprisings against authoritarian leaders across the Middle East, including in nearby Libya and Egypt.

Drafted in as prime minister in 2011 after Ben Ali was toppled, Essebsi was elected president three years later, becoming the country’s first directly elected head of state after its “Arab Spring” uprising.

Parliamentary elections are expected to be held on Oct. 6 with a presidential vote following on Nov. 17. They will be the third set of polls in which Tunisians have been able to vote freely following the 2011 revolution.

In a statement, the presidency called on Tunisians to unite and safeguard their country’s present and future.

Essebsi seen by critics favouring strong state

“After the revolution, the president led the people to avoid confrontation and led the democratic transition and was keen to build and complete the constitutional institutions,” said the presidency.

Analyst Ibrahim Ouslati said the death of Essebsi, one of the world’s oldest leaders, was not expected to disrupt politics.

“I don’t think there will be any problem because the Tunisians have a constitution that clearly shows that the speaker of the parliament occupies the position temporarily,” he said.

“Politically, there will be no problem. The political elite has enough awareness to manage it wisely like any democratic country.”

Essebsi faced criticism that he was seeking a return to a strong state with power concentrated in the presidency, whose role is limited to foreign and defense policies under the new constitution.

Critics also accused Essebsi of attempting a dynastic handover, rowing back on post-revolution freedoms, and failing to support a truth commission seeking justice for the victims of authoritarian rule.

Tunisia has been hailed as the only democratic success of the Arab Spring uprisings, with a new constitution, free elections and a coalition government with secular and moderate Islamists in a region otherwise struggling with upheaval.

But political progress has not been matched by economic advances. Unemployment stands at about 15 percent, up from 12 percent in 2010, due to weak growth and low investment.

Tunisia has been spared much of the violence seen elsewhere in the Middle East since 2011, although it has been the target of militant Islamists over the years.

Government troops have been battling militant groups in remote areas near the border with Algeria, while high unemployment has also stoked unrest in recent years.


Experts analyze ‘Deal of the Century’ at Abu Dhabi strategic forum

Updated 29 min 22 sec ago

Experts analyze ‘Deal of the Century’ at Abu Dhabi strategic forum

  • Israeli-Palestinian conflict discussed on second and final day of Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate
  • Washington Institute’s David Makovsky says a solution ‘needs to give dignity to both parties’

ABU DHABI: On the second day of the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, experts on foreign-policy and security issues took part in an exhaustive discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As panelists in a session entitled “The Deal of the Century: Rewriting the Rules of the Regional Game,” they discussed the US role in the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the context of President Donald Trump’s promise during his 2016 election campaign to broker a deal that caters to the demands of both sides.

David Makovsky, Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the project on Arab-Israel relations at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that for a solution to work, it “needs to give dignity to both parties.”

Referring to the phrase “The deal of the Century,” Makovsky said that it was not coined by the US or the Trump administration, and was in effect first used at a press conference in the Middle East.

While the deal’s political components remain a mystery, Makovsky said the economic elements consisted of “raising around $50 billion from affluent countries in the region, in the form of loans, grants and investments.”

According to him, “most of it will be spent in Palestine, some in Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, to support infrastructure and business projects.”

However, the economic elements remain “a part of a package of five core issues” known as the “final status,” said Makovsky.

They include “borders, Jerusalem, refugees, and mutual recognition of the other state,” he added, pointing out that the issues had not yet been fleshed out.

“They are waiting for a new government in Israel but this late in the cycle of the first administration, with US elections coming up in 2020, they will put out a vision and not a plan.”

He said a vision would lay out US ideas in 60 to 70 pages, with the presumption that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would reject it.

“At the minimum, it is a historic reference point,” said Makovsky, who went on to express his disagreement with the “all or nothing” approach taken by the Trump administration with regard to Middle Eastern issues.

“If you say yes on the five issues, you get 178 economic projects. My fear is in the Middle East, when it is all or nothing, it is nothing.”

As part of the same panel discussion, Dr. Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland said previous US administrations, including that of President Barack Obama, had failed to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simply because “the issue has become less strategically important” to the US.

“Never has a US president since the end of the Cold War made the (Israeli-Palestinian issue) a top priority,” he said.