Tunisians paid tribute this week to former President Beji Caid Essebsi who made his mark on the world stage by advancing the cause of women’s rights.
Tunisia has granted women more rights than any other country in the region. Since 2017, it has allowed Tunisian Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men.
The former leader played a vital role in helping ensure that, more than any other Arab state, the north African country preserved many of the essential gains of the Arab spring movement.
As his horse-drawn carriage was led through the streets of Tunis, crowds chanted: “Goodbye president, goodbye Bajbouj,”referring to Essebsi’s nickname.
Mr. Essebsi passed away at a military hospital on July 25. He was 92 years of age.
Caid Essebsi was regarded as a unifying figure in a fractured political landscape with more than 130 political parties. He reached out to Islamists and their secularist foes to pull the country out of chaos in 2011 and presided over its first free and fair elections as prime minister.
His efforts earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet which avoided a civil war in 2013 and for its effort to build a pluralistic democracy.
Prior to general elections in 2014, Caid Essebsi founded Nidaa Tounes (Tunisia’s Call) – a political party that served as a counterweight to Islamists and won the vote. The electoral victory made him the first politician in the region to defeat Islamists in free elections.
Caid Essebsi became president in December 2014. He proceeded to restore Tunisia’s balanced role in the region after a drift towards alignment with Turkey and Qatar and their Muslim Brotherhood allies.
Born in the northern coastal town of Sidi Bou Said, he came from a family of wealthy landowners. In 1941, with Tunisia loyal to Vichy France, he joined the youth wing of the Neo-Destour party, which had been founded a few years earlier to demand full independence from the French.
Like many of his contemporaries, Essebsi admired Habib Bourguiba, the charismatic Neo-Destour leader, who would lead Tunisia to independence in 1956.
After joining Bourguiba as an adviser in 1957, Essebsi served, among other posts, in the key positions of head of national security and interior minister in the 1960s, a period of some domestic repression, and later as defense minister and ambassador to Paris.
He is survived by his wife, Chadlia Saida Farhat, and by their sons, Hafedh, also a politician, and Khelil, and daughters, Amel and Salwa.