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Why President Essebsi, and Tunisia, Stood Alone

He Was Both Link to the Past and Bridge to a Democratic Future

Essebsi in Paris, France, December 2016 Romain GAILLARD / REA / Redux

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

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