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.

Protests sweep Lebanon for a second day

Updated 18 min 22 sec ago

Protests sweep Lebanon for a second day

  • The unusually wide geographic reach of the protests has been seen as a sign of deepening anger with politicians
  • Lebanon’s economic growth has been hit by regional conflict and instability

BEIRUT: Protesters across Lebanon blocked roads with burning tires on Friday and marched in Beirut for a second day of demonstrations targeting the government over a deep economic crisis.
In Lebanon’s biggest protest in years, thousands of people gathered outside the government headquarters in central Beirut on Thursday evening, forcing the cabinet to backtrack on plans to raise a new tax on WhatsApp voice calls. Tear gas was fired as some demonstrators and police clashed in the early hours.
Fires lit in the street in central Beirut were smoldering on Friday morning. Pavements were scattered with the glass of several smashed shop-fronts and billboards had been torn down.
Protesters blocked roads in the north, the south and the Bekaa Valley, among other areas, the National News Agency (NNA) reported. Schools were closed on the instructions of the government.
Two foreign workers choked to death from a fire that spread to a building near the protests in Beirut, the NNA said.
This was the second wave of nationwide protests this month.
In a country fractured along sectarian lines, the unusually wide geographic reach of these protests has been seen as a sign of deepening anger with politicians who have jointly led Lebanon into crisis.
The government, which includes nearly all of Lebanon’s main parties, is struggling to implement long-delayed reforms that are seen as more vital than ever to begin resolving the crisis.
The Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar described it as “a tax intifada,” or uprising, across Lebanon. Another daily, Al-Akhbar, declared it “the WhatsApp revolution” that had shaken Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s unity government.
Seeking ways to boost revenues, a government minister on Thursday announced plans to raise a new fee of 20 cents per day for calls via voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), used by applications including Facebook-owned WhatsApp.
But as the protests spread, Telecoms Minister Mohamed Choucair phoned into Lebanese broadcasters on Thursday evening to say the proposed levy on WhatsApp calls had been revoked.
Shattered by war between 1975 and 1990, Lebanon has one of the world’s highest debt burdens as a share of its economy. Economic growth has been hit by regional conflict and instability. Unemployment among those aged under 35 runs at 37 percent.
The kind of steps needed to fix the national finances have long proven elusive. Sectarian politicians, many of them civil war veterans, have long used state resources for their own political benefit and are reluctant to cede prerogatives.
The crisis has been compounded by a slowdown in capital flows to Lebanon, which has long depended on remittances from its diaspora to meet financing needs, including the state’s deficit.
The financial crunch has added to the impetus for reform but the government’s steps have yet to convince foreign donors who have offered billions in financial assistance conditional on changes.
The strains have emerged recently in the real economy where importers have been unable to secure dollars at the pegged exchange rate.
The cabinet is due to meet on Friday at the presidential palace in Baabda in what a minister has said would be the final session to discuss the 2020 state budget.