The puzzling return of Essebsi in post-revolution Tunisia

Head of the Tunisian ISIE elections body, Chafik Sarsar (C) and ISIE fellow members stand in front of a giant screen during a press conference on December 22, 2014 in Tunis to announce that anti-Islamist politician Beji Caid Essebsi (R on the screen) won Tunisia's presidential election with 55.68 percent of the vote beating incumbent Moncef Marzouki. AFP/Fethi Belaid

By: Noureddine Baltayeb

Published Tuesday, December 23, 2014

No Tunisian could have imagined that this old man, Beji Caid Essebsi, who had been forgotten with the ministers of former President Habib Bourguiba, will become the president of Tunisia at almost 90 years of age after a revolution that was driven by the Tunisian youth.

Tunisia – Essebsi, born in 1926, received 55.68 percent of the votes in the second round of the presidential race against his opponent, the interim President Moncef Marzouki who only managed to secure 44.32 percent of the vote. The voter turnout in the run-off presidential election was 60.11 percent of registered voters. Essebsi’s victory constitutes a stark paradox after a revolution that was led by young people, including unemployed college graduates, that toppled the previous regime on January 14, 2011.

The irony is that Essebsi defeated the candidate of the “revolution” and the “Arab Spring,” which was welcomed in the Arab world and internationally when it began in Tunisia in late 2010 and early 2011, and which spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria leading to catastrophic results in most of these cases.

This victory by Essebsi – who represents a symbolic legacy as one of the builders of the post-independence state launched on March 20, 1956, when he joined the office of the prime minister as an advisor to Bourguiba – marks the end of the project heralded by his opponent. Marzouki – a human rights activist and a fierce opponent to the regimes of both Bourguiba and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali – advanced his project by promoting the rise of the “Arab Spring” against “corrupt and tyrannical regimes.” This project began in the city of Sidi Bouzeid when martyr Mohammed Bouazizi set himself ablaze on December 17, 2010. Bouazizi’s self-immolation ushered in unprecedented protests that ended with Ben Ali’s ouster while his prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, became acting president for one night before speaker of the parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, was sworn in as interim president. However, the youth of the revolution – as they are called in Tunisia – toppled the first and second governments by two famous sit-ins (the first and second Casbah) and the country did not regain its stability until Essebsi became prime minister at the end of February 2011.

The handover of power

When Essebsi’s name returned to the political limelight, it was new for the majority of young Tunisians who took part in the protest movement because he had withdrawn from political life in 1991 after serving as speaker of the parliament for one year under Ben Ali. Essebsi, however, is an old name in the Tunisian political scene and he took important positions in favor of democracy. He was the first one to defect from the Bourguiba regime when he resigned from the Tunisian embassy in Paris in 1979. Publishing his resignation in the French daily Le Monde was an implicit challenge to Bourguiba, the “godfather” and leader. He wrote in details about his relationship with the president in his famous book “Habib Bourguiba Le Bon Grain et L'ivraie” (Habib Bourguiba, the Wheat and the Chaff).

A number of resignations followed Essebsi’s resignation, most notably by Ahmed Mestiri, Habib Boularès, Mohammed Mouada, Mustafa Ben Jaafar and others. They resigned because the regime was violating the foundations of democracy, banning political pluralism and freedom of the press. In 1976, Essebsi established a magazine in French called Democracy which played a vital role in spreading democratic culture in a country that believed in a single leader. He was also close to and active in the group that established the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights and the newspaper Rai in the late 1970s. Essebsi did not return to the government until Bourguiba allowed political party pluralism and freedom of the press. He became minister of foreign affairs and then ambassador to Germany under Prime Minister Mohammed Mzali who was close to the Islamists.

Essebsi reappeared on the Tunisian political scene after the failure of Mohammed Ghannouchi’s two governments. He made history as the first Arab prime minister to hand power over to a government that emanates from a parliament elected by the people and headed by one of the leaders of the Islamist movement, Hamadi Jebali, the secretary general of al-Nahda. The celebration he organized at the government palace in Casbah in November 2011 set a precedent in the history of the Arab world eight months after heading the government, having committed to organize the elections and abstain with all members of his government from running for office.

The comeback

After handing over power, no one thought that the old man in his 80s will return to the political limelight. But since January 26, 2012, he decided to come back and to create balance in the Tunisian political scene. He established the Nidaa Tounes movement with a group of leftists, Youssefists (supporters of Salah Ben Youssef who was assassinated by Bourguiba), trade unionists and Doustouris. In record time, his party became the primary political force that won the biggest number of parliamentary seats (86) and headed the government, in accordance with the Tunisian constitution. He also won the presidency, setting another Tunisian precedent as the popular protests organized by the youth that toppled the previous regime chose an old man at the head of the state in an election where young people where the most prominent absentees. Is his victory a sign of nostalgia for Bourguiba? Or is it a sense of despair with the revolution and the rule of Islamists and their allies?

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


I would say disillusion with the Islamists, especially after the debacle of Morsy in Egypt and the growth of the extremists tolerated by the Islamists.
The army being rather weak, a military ruling was excluded, therefore the only choice was to return to the "old stable regime" revamped.
The Arab spring has brought every country to a failed revolution. When is the next one?

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