Tunisia, the single democracy to emerge from the Middle East’s 2011 political revolts, suddenly must choose a new leader following the death of 92-year-old President Beji Caid Essebsi. Essebsi was the country’s first freely elected president and helped lead its transition away from decades of authoritarian rule. His death accelerates a test for this young democracy—its first political succession under its 2014 constitution. Yet as Tunisia faces political discontent in a young generation frustrated with the country’s longtime elites, the established political parties have offered few youthful candidates.

Tunisia must find a successor to President Beji Caid Essebsi, a pragmatist and moderate who helped guide democratization following the popular overthrow of its authoritarian regime. Essebsi spoke at USIP in 2015.
Tunisia must find a successor to President Beji Caid Essebsi, a pragmatist and moderate who helped guide democratization following the popular overthrow of its authoritarian regime. Essebsi spoke at USIP in 2015.

Essebsi and the Transition

President Essebsi’s career involved a transition in its own right. He rose to prominence under the single-party rule of Tunisia’s founding leader and president-for-life, Habib Bourguiba. When Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali took power in 1987 to begin 24 years of autocratic rule, Essebsi served briefly in a key position for that regime as president of the National Assembly. But after two years, he left government, establishing a quiet distance from Ben Ali’s rule.

In 2011, mass protests fueled by frustrated youth toppled Ben Ali. Essebsi was a rare veteran of the earlier regimes who could play a mediating role between the country’s powerful elites and its young revolutionaries. He served as interim prime minister and guided the country in electing a constitutional assembly and a transitional government.

Despite sharp political conflicts and periodic eruptions of violence, civic and political leaders maintained stability. Four Tunisian civil society organizations—its human rights league, labor and industry federations and its lawyers’ association—shared the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for their role.

Essebsi also played a key part. After forming a secularist party, and winning the presidency and a parliament plurality in 2014, Essebsi negotiated a broad coalition with the Islamist party, Ennahda, second-largest in the parliament. In a 2015 public forum at USIP, Essebsi said Tunisians’ political culture was vital to achieving such compromise. “Thanks to our consensual spirit, we have managed to overcome … political polarization, which has characterized the period preceding the drafting of the [2014] constitution, between the Islamists and the seculars.”


The Struggle for Youth

A critical challenge for Essebsi and the post-revolution government has been to persuade Tunisia’s massive youth population—more than 60 percent of people are younger than 30—to see the political system and government as a viable way to improve the country and their prospects. The persistence of corruption, endemic in Tunisia’s old regimes, is a major obstacle.

Many young Tunisians find themselves still excluded from jobs, careers and a voice in political institutions, and so dismiss elections and politics as worthwhile methods for change. Extremist groups affiliated with ISIS or al-Qaida are working to fill that gap, targeting young Tunisians for radicalization.

As Essebsi neared the end of his term this year, he announced that he would not seek re-election. Tunisia, he said, should “open the door to youth.” Yet eight years on, “Tunisia’s 2011 uprising has yet to produce many young political elites able to break into the national political arena,” noted Leo Siebert, an international development specialist at USIP’s office in Tunis.

“Among this country’s many talented, passionate, experienced, and active young people, most of those with the ideas and the will to challenge the status quo have opted to remain in civil society,” said Siebert, who manages USIP programs in Tunisia. “This changed slightly in the 2018 municipal elections with a significant number of youth winning office, many under independent lists.”

The Next Election

Essebsi’s death will now advance the election, previously planned for November, to choose his successor. Within hours of Essebsi’s death, parliament speaker Mohamed Ennaceur—himself 85 and also a holdover from Tunisia’s single-party rule of decades ago—was sworn in as interim president and will oversee balloting now set for September 15.

For this election, a field of prospective candidates is already relatively well established, Siebert noted. One younger possibility is Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who is 43. (By contrast, the average age of the six other prime ministers since 2011 is 72.) “Other prospective candidates come from similar, well-established political currents that have been in play since the revolution and, in some cases, during the old regime,” Siebert said.

Political analysts say that discontent with that established elite may be driving the recent lead, in opinion polls, of the most prominent younger candidate—political outsider Nabil Karoui. Karoui, 56, owns a popular TV channel, Nessma—and has made himself a star, founding a charity organization and using his channel to publicize it. He has appeared often on Nessma’s broadcasts, handing out gifts of food or clothing to residents of poor neighborhoods.

But Karoui’s place in the election has raised controversy. He has faced allegations of tax evasion and money laundering. Nessma was raided by police in April and its license withdrawn by regulators, although it has continued to broadcast. The parliament last month passed a law barring the candidacy of anyone who benefits from “charitable associations.” President Essebsi neither signed nor vetoed that law before his death, leaving its status undetermined.

To the extent that the death of President Essebsi unsettles Tunisians, it could strengthen a tendency by voters to seek stability in the face of uncertainty, Siebert noted. “It is reasonable to suppose that voters might once again opt for a familiar face,” he said. “But no one expected Tunisia to launch the Arab Spring. So we should not be shocked if this election yields an unexpected candidate.” 

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