Tunisians believe he can unite their country and make it strong again: Beji Caid Essebsi held various ministerial positions under the first president of the Tunisian republic, Habib Bourguiba (1957-1987). Now he’s been tasked with reshaping the North African country. In the first round of voting one month ago, Essebsi was able to secure 36.46 percent of the vote, and he’s now gained a majority in the run-off election against the outgoing interim president, Moncef Marzouki.
Longing for a familiar face
Essebsi is 88 years old. Not what you might expect if you’re looking for someone who will make a fresh start – but Tunisians voted for Essebsi for other reasons, according to Hardy Ostry, head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Tunis office. “Many Tunisians were looking for a strong personality, a father of the nation,” he told DW. “The other thing is that, unlike Marzouki, he was in a position to unite instead of divide. That’s what Tunisians are seeking, after the turbulence of 2013.”
Essebsi’s opponent, Moncef Marzouki, voting on Sunday
2013 was marked by chaos under the religious-oriented transition government, whose indulgence of violent Islamist groups led to a marked worsening of the security situation. At the same time, living conditions for ordinary people rapidly deteriorated under the Islamists. That helps explain why there was a great longing for a familiar face, someone who could assume the role of father figure.
No revolutionary hero
In his election campaign Essebsi promised the people a modern, secular Tunisia. He didn’t stand out under the autocratic leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011) as either loyal to the regime or as part of the opposition. He wasn’t directly involved in the revolution at the start of 2011, but he does champion the ideas of the Arab Spring.
An 88-year-old who represents the values of the angry youth? “Many young people are counting on this old man,” says Hardy Ostry. “He and his party are promising to address the concerns of the youth – to combat unemployment. And no one of his age is about to establish a dictatorship – that’s certainly an important aspect, too,” he adds.
It’s hardly harmed Essebsi that he was not among those who overthrew Ben Ali in January 2011. On the contrary: Disappointment with many of the so-called “revolutionary heroes,” such as the president of the Constituent Assembly, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, helped boost Essebsi’s popularity. His direct rival, the former human rights campaigner Marzouki, also forfeited respect in the run-up to the election. Many Tunisians believed that, as interim president, he hadn’t put enough distance between himself and the Islamists. For example, during his time in office he invited Islamist preachers who condoned violence for official visits to the presidential palace.
Tunisians are hoping Essebsi can improve the economy and foster unity in the country
Man of the West
Essebsi is seen as a reconciler – and not only by his own people. He might also pursue a foreign policy that would seek good relations both with Tunisia’s Arab neighbors and with Europe. Ostry believes that this is the case: “Essebsi will represent classic Tunisian positions. He has to maintain good relations with the neighboring countries because of Tunisia’s geostrategic significance and its size,” he says. And good contacts with Europe could also be very close to his heart: “Involvement during the transition period by Germany in particular was significant for him,” comments Ostry.
This period in Tunisia has now been going on for almost four years. The new constitution, which made the parliamentary and presidential elections in recent months possible, was only adopted in January 2014.
A new Bourguiba?
The name Bourguiba hangs over Essebsi’s election: After years of dictatorship and chaos, many Tunisians certainly yearn for the relative stability of that time. A revival of the Bourguiba era seems, however, unlikely. Ostry comments that about two years ago, when the religious Ennahda party’s initial draft constitution threatened to do away with many of the achievements made under the first president – such as gender equality or the clear separation of religion and state – there was a phase during which the Bourguiba era was glorified. This phase, Ostry says, is now over. At the time, Essebsi positioned himself as a defender of Bourguiba’s ideas. “Now, though, he certainly isn’t going to go out and refight the battles of the 1950s. Rather, he’ll make clear that Tunisia is far more advanced now than it was then, and that what was achieved under Bourguiba must be preserved,” says Ostry.
To date, Tunisia has been regarded as the model of the democracy movement in North Africa. The West expects Essebsi to continue along this path. There’s a great deal for Tunisia’s new president to do.