Tunis, Tunisia | AFP | Tunisia is gearing up for snap elections as early as September following the death of president Beji Caid Essebsi, amid uncertainty over who could step forward to run the North African country.
Essebsi, the country’s first head of state elected in nationwide polls, died Thursday at the age of 92, triggering fears of political unrest in a country seen as a rare success story following the Arab Spring uprisings.
Newspapers on Friday paid tribute to “the father of consensus”, while festivals were cancelled and the government declared seven days of mourning.
“Our pain is great, our sorrow is immense,” read an editorial in French language daily Le Temps.
Hundreds of people — some in tears, others singing the national anthem — gathered outside a military hospital in Tunis on Friday as Essebsi’s body was taken to the presidential palace in nearby Carthage.
Within hours of Essebsi’s death, parliament speaker Mohamed Ennaceur was sworn in as interim president, who under the constitution has 90 days to organise a presidential election.
The electoral commission said the poll would “probably” be held on September 15, two months earlier than planned.
Foreign governments including that of former colonial power France have hailed Essebsi’s role in Tunisia’s democratic transition.
Algeria, Libya and Mauritania as well as Egypt and Jordan all declared three days of mourning, while US President Donald Trump in a White House statement paid tribute to Essebsi’s “tremendous leadership”.
The funeral ceremony is to take place on Saturday with French President Emmanuel Macron, Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and Algeria’s interim president Abdelkader Bensalah in attendance, before Essebsi is buried in his family’s plot in central Tunis.
– Reforms despite turmoil –
The birthplace of the Arab Spring revolts, Tunisia is the only country affected by the uprisings to have pushed through democratic reforms — despite political unrest, a sluggish economy and jihadist attacks.
Islamist extremists have staged repeated deadly attacks since the overthrow of Ben Ali, raising fears for the country’s fragile democracy and throttling its tourism industry.
Following Ben Ali’s departure, Essebsi founded the secularist Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunis) party, which he led to victory at the polls in 2014.
The party formed a coalition with the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha, which lasted four years before the two parties split.
But Nidaa Tounes has struggled to overcome bitter internal divisions between Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and the president’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, leading to the premier being sidelined from Nidaa Tounes and forming his own rival party, Tahia Tounes.
The president’s death also comes amid a debate over who will be able to run in the next presidential elections.
Essebsi neither rejected nor enacted an amended electoral code passed by parliament in June that would bar the way for several strong candidates including media magnate Nabil Karoui.
Karoui, who has formed a political party, was charged with money laundering this month after he stated his intention to stand.
The presidential election, along with a parliamentary vote that had been set for October, also comes with Tunisia yet to set up a constitutional court eight years after the Arab Spring.
Despite the uncertainty, Chahed hailed a “peaceful transfer of power”, while interim leader Ennaceur vowed that “the state will continue to function”.
But Tunisian politicians and analysts said the failure to establish a constitutional court was a key piece of unfinished business left behind by Essebsi, along with an unprecedented law that would have given women equal inheritance rights as men.
“He was one of the elements who undermined the creation of the constitutional court,” for political reasons, said lawmaker Ghazi Chaouachi.
“He was influential due to his alliance with Ennahda and in 2017 he could have put pressure on that party… to set it up,” he said.
Essebsi also pushed but failed to clinch a vote in parliament for a bill that would equalise inheritance rights between men and women, a sensitive issue touched on in the Koran and which sparked debate.
PM Riadh Ben Fadhel said that Essebsi had wanted this to be his “legacy” but “now it will be very complicated to submit the bill again to parliament.”