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.
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.
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