SHAFAQNA – An 88-year-old stalwart of the pre-revolutionary regime was declared the winner in Tunisia’s first democratic presidential election yesterday, four years after the uprising that began the Arab Spring.
Beji Caid Essebsi defeated the caretaker president, Moncef Marzouki, taking almost 56 per cent of the vote, but his victory declaration on Monday night — before the official results were published — prompted rioting in the south of country, the cradle of the uprising. Youths blocked roads and burnt tyres and chanted: “No to the old regime”
Opponents fear that Mr Essebsi’s victory will be a step backwards, erasing the promise of Tunisia’s “jasmine revolution” and bringing back the old order. Many more, however, wearied by the turmoil of recent years, yearn for the greater stability and security that he insists only he can provide.
Mr Essebsi served under both of the authoritarian regimes that ruled Tunisia from independence in 1956 until the 2011 uprising, which began when a street vendor set himself on fire in protest over the humiliation and harassment he said had been heaped on him by vindictive municipal officials.
As interior minister in the 1960s, Mr Essebsi was a pillar of the security establishment under the repressive rule of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba. He later held the foreign and defence portfolios.
In the nineties, he was the Speaker of parliament under the one-party rule of President Ben Ali, who fled into exile in Saudi Arabia a month into the 2011 uprising. Mr Essebsi was drafted in as interim prime minister after the revolt.
The job gave him a platform from which to begin recasting himself as a pro-democracy technocrat, leading the country into its first free parliamentary elections before stepping aside for the leader of the Islamist Ennahda party, the winner of the largest number of seats in the new assembly. He founded the secular party, Nidaa Tounes, or Call for Tunisia, which came first in October’s parliamentary elections, beating Ennahda into second place.
The past four years have been marked by a surge in terrorism, crime and inflation, all of which Mr Essebsi has sought to blame on the Islamist transitional government and on Mr Marzouki, a secular human rights activist.
During a bitter election campaign, he sought to cast Mr Marzouki as an extremist, playing on Tunisian fears about the violence enveloping many of its Middle Eastern neighbours. “We want a 21st-century state, a progressive state,” Mr Essebsi said in a reference to Islamists. “What separates us from those people is 14 centuries.”
He denies that his age is an obstacle and argues that youth is a state of mind.