FILE PHOTO: Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi holds a news conference at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, Tunisia, October 25, 2018. Picture: REUTERS / ZOUBEIR SOUISSI
FILE PHOTO: Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi holds a news conference at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, Tunisia, October 25, 2018. Picture: REUTERS / ZOUBEIR SOUISSI

Tunis — Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, the North African country’s first leader elected in nationwide polls, died on Thursday at the age of 92. 

The veteran politician, the oldest head of state after Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, came to power in 2014, three years after the Arab Spring uprising toppled longtime despot Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked revolts in several Arab nations.

He had been severely ill in hospital since late June and was returned to intensive care on Thursday.

“Things are not going well,” the leader’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, said on Thursday after he was readmitted.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Essebsi “a courageous actor on the road to democracy”.

Concerned over a potential power vacuum ahead of November polls, politicians and social media users had called for greater transparency about the president’s health since he was admitted to hospital.

Tunisia’s constitution, adopted in 2014, provides two measures in the case of a power vacuum.

The prime minister can take over the president’s responsibilities for a period of no more than 60 days.

If the vacancy is longer, the speaker of parliament is tasked with the role for up to 90 days.

In both cases, the decision must be taken by a constitutional court after it validates the president’s incapacity.

But eight years after the Arab Spring, Tunisia has yet to set up a constitutional court.

Jihadist attacks 

Tunisia has been hit by repeated jihadist attacks since the overthrow of Ben Ali, raising fears over the country’s fragile democracy and throttling its tourism industry.

In March 2015, jihadist gunmen killed 21 tourists and a policeman at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis.

In June that year, 30 Britons were among 38 foreign holidaymakers killed in a gun and grenade attack on a beach resort near the Tunisian city of Sousse.

In November 2015, a suicide bombing against a bus in the capital carrying presidential guards killed 12, in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group that prompted a state of emergency that remains until today.

A veteran politician, Essebsi served as an adviser to Habib Bourguiba, the father of Tunisia’s independence from France, holding a number of key jobs under him and later under Ben Ali.

Over the years, Essebsi was director-general of the national police and interior minister. He later held the defence portfolio before becoming ambassador to France.

After a subsequent posting as Tunisia’s envoy to Germany, he was named foreign minister.

He also served in parliament, holding the speakership in 1990 and 1991.

He became prime minister after the 2011 uprising and organised parliamentary elections later that year.

Essebsi is the founder and chair of the secularist Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) party.

Nidaa Tounes won the polls in 2014 and formed a coalition with the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha, which lasted four years before the two parties split.

But Essebsi's party has struggled to overcome bitter internal division and to bring Prime Minister Youssef Chahed back into the fold.

Tensions have flared between Chahed and Essebsi’s son, Hafedh, leading to the premier being sidelined from Nidaa Tounes and forming his own rival party, Tahia Tounes.

Essebsi said he this April did not plan to stand for re-election in polls due to be held in November to make way for someone younger.

Presidential elections are scheduled for November 17, after parliamentary elections which have been set for October 6.

Essebsi neither rejected nor enacted an amended electoral code passed by parliament in June that would bar the way for several strong candidates.

The restrictions would rule out the candidacy of media magnate Nabil Karoui, charged earlier in July with money laundering, who has formed a political party and stated his intention to stand.