Last Thursday, Beji Caid Essebsi, the president of the Republic of Tunisia, died in a military hospital at the age of 92. His death fell on a national holiday of particular resonance: Republic Day commemorates the founding of modern Tunisia on July 25, 1957, when the country abolished its monarchy and became a republic.

Essebsi had an important connection to the events of 1957. He belonged to the party and government of the Republic of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, who was among the most important, and most stridently secular, nationalists in the Arabic-speaking world. Bourguiba was friends with U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy. He made headlines for drinking orange juice on television in the middle of the day during Ramadan, as well as for policies against veiling. Less famous, but more profound, were the changes Bourguiba made to Tunisia’s economy and social fabric—reforms that propelled Tunisia to become one of the most developed and educated countries in the Muslim world.

Essebsi was an entrenched part of Bourguiba’s government, intimately involved in implementing secularization policies, fostering economic expansion, and defending Bourguiba’s decisions. He served as director of national security, as foreign minister, and in other senior posts under both Bourguiba and his successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, until leaving government service behind in 1994.

At Essebsi's funeral in Tunis, Tunisia, July 2019
At Essebsi's funeral in Tunis, Tunisia, July 2019
Ammar Awad / Reuters

Essebsi’s timing was fortunate. Ben Ali was a corrupt strongman disliked by his people—so much so that a popular uprising known as the Jasmine Revolution ousted him in January 2011. In 2014, an independent tribunal called the Truth and Dignity Commission began investigating the Tunisian government’s human rights abuses since 1955. The commission held Essebsi responsible for a crackdown on dissidents during his time as national security director, following a 1963 attempt on Bourguiba’s life. But this finding did not lose Essebsi the confidence of Tunisians, who looked to him as a stabilizing force during the difficult and often chaotic years following 2011.

Tunisians looked to Essebsi as a stabilizing force during the difficult and often chaotic years following 2011.

As a senior statesman, Essebsi was a flesh-and-blood link to Tunisia’s past—specifically to the era of Bourguiba, which many Tunisians remember fondly. When revolutionaries sent Ben Ali packing in January 2011, they quickly removed his image from public spaces and buildings, and the newly free media reported furiously on his abuses and corruption. Now a statue of Bourguiba on a horse stands over the avenue Bourguiba and looks into the heart of Tunis, where so many of the protests occurred. Essebsi brought this statue back to the capital in 2016 from its earlier exile to La Goulette. Not everyone lionizes the first president of the republic, and many young Tunisians criticize the return to power of elites from the previous regime. But plenty of Tunisians viewed Essebsi’s connection to Bourguiba as a link to a proud period of progress—one that offered inspiration as the country stepped into the unknown.

Essebsi returned to Tunisian politics from a long retirement in order to usher his country through a decade of tumult. Like Hercules, whom the Greeks equated with the Carthaginian god Melqart, he slew the many-headed Cerberus of Middle East politics. He showed that a new undemocratic government need not necessarily grow from the root of the previous one. As prime minister of a transitional government in 2011, Essebsi freely handed the reins of government to a former rival, the Ennahda Party. That party’s leader was a charismatic thinker named Rached Ghannouchi, who did not have an official government post but wielded great power and commanded the support of rural, conservative, and religious Tunisians, among others. Essebsi could have chosen to crush or undermine Ennahda by force. Instead he formed his own secularist party, Nidaa Tounes, and won elections in 2014. Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda formed a coalition and governed Tunisia together.

Such were the crucial decisions—to step down from power, to compete with Ennahda as political rivals rather than as existential enemies, and then to cooperate—through which Essebsi helped to preserve Tunisia’s transition to democracy. The same actions helped stave off any temptation to a secularist military takeover. Today Ennahda is called the Muslim Democrats, remains fully involved in Tunisian politics, and may well come to resemble the Christian Democrats of modern Germany.

Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, now called simply the Thawra (Uprising) by most Tunisians, began with the suicide of a fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010; became a popular outcry against corruption and lack of representation; and went on to spark the flame of the Arab Spring. Like a wildfire, that flame spread to Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and even the wealthy Gulf. Today the flames are mostly doused and have left devastation in many places. Syria and Yemen plunged into terrible civil wars. Most of the monarchies, from Morocco to the Gulf, held firm with limited reforms. Many in Sudan and Algeria, taking Tunisia as their model, still hold out hope for success.

Tunisia stands alone at the end of the era it started, just as it did at the beginning.

Tunisia stands alone at the end of the era it started, just as it did at the beginning. Scholars already call Tunisia an anomaly and debate why that should be: of all the countries that went through the Arab Spring, why is Tunisia the one that managed to establish a truly democratic system, with free elections and a secular, constitutional government?

Some reasons may be structural or demographic. Tunisia has a well-developed middle class. Except for some pockets of Berber and Ibadi Muslims and Jews, almost all Tunisians identify themselves as Sunni Muslim Arabs, and they are not divided along sectarian or religious lines. Tunisians are highly educated. Then, too, the country’s political history furnishes other explanations. Tunisians had embraced Bourguiba’s brand of secularization as part of their national character. Essebsi, his team of technocrats, and the military leadership embodied this ethos. During the Jasmine Revolution, the Tunisian military eventually chose to protect the people of Tunisia rather than follow Ben Ali’s orders to fire upon them. Essebsi, by supporting a neutral military, helped ensure such an outcome. Once the wheels were in motion in the period from 2011 to 2016, Tunisia managed to engineer several peaceful transfers of power, to draft and ratify a democratic constitution, and to overcome political deadlock along the way through the active participation of civil society organizations.    

Important as each of these factors may be on its own, the one variable that ultimately combined them in just the right way to produce Tunisia’s burgeoning democracy was Essebsi’s leadership. His decision to reenter politics at a dangerous time for former government officials, his avoidance of military violence, his handing over the reins to Ennahda, his taking back those same reins the hard way—by forming a political party, building a constituency, and entering a coalition with his rivals—and his status as a continuous link to Tunisia’s past as a proud, modern republic have all contributed to Tunisia’s emergence as the true success story of the Arab Spring.

Essebsi is no longer alive, but the democracy he and the Tunisian people created—vibrant, messy, and magnificent—will survive him. His will be a tough act to follow.

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