Duke In The Arab World 2019

August 1, 2019

The President is Dead, Long Live Democracy 


The announcement of President Beji’s death.  Professor Rejeb (end-left with microphone) gave the address at 11:00 a.m. on July 25th during the conference at University of Carthage.

Twelve hours after arriving in Tunisia, I found myself under a tent on the shores of the Mediterranean sipping tea. It was 1 in the afternoon and I was taking in the ancient ruins of the Roman baths of Carthage when the playful cry of a child from across the ruins in a hilltop compound split the whisper of the water and the others in the café. A pristine field, a line of tents, and armed guards manning the walls begged me to ask those next to me – ‘What’s that compound?’ ‘The president’s palace, a beautiful piece of land.’ He was 92 they said. He had been hospitalized a month prior, and the café goers said some thought he had died a month ago. It was a curious way to enter the world of Tunisian politics.

The Presidential Estate, four days before the President’s death, with the pillars of the Roman Bathhouse of Carthage in the foreground

I could never predict how deep I would dive and the truths I would learn.

I went into Universite de Carthage (UC) like I had the over the past few days – unassuming and eager to hear the day’s speakers who had participated in the transition period and the establishment of the constitution. After our first speaker, Dr. Chafik Sarsar, the former president of the Independent Election Agency which ran the first constitutional election of Tunisia, at 10 in the morning, the crowd of Americans and Tunisians was put into a somber mood when it was announced the president was hospitalized the day prior. In a break for group discussion, sipping my coffee this time – I heard it again. The word was that the president had died. At 10:30 a.m., only three of us at the front of the conference room knew. At 11 a.m., a ripple was felt across the room. The person behind me held up my phone to show those around what was on Facebook – the first and current constitutionally elected president of Tunisia, Beji Caid Essebi was confirmed dead in the hospital. Phones began to ring. The Dean of UC had to excuse himself. A whisper was heard as one by one everyone received the news.

Sorrow filled the room as the announcement of the President’s death

As the session came to an end, Professor Rejeb Abdelsatter, director of L’Institut National du Travail et des Etudes Sociales (INTES) at the Universite de Carthage (UC) gave an address:

‘The President of Tunisia, Beji Caid Essebi, is dead. We can criticize a politician for his actions in politics, but we cannot criticize a man. For any man to die is a loss. But President Essebi has been a father to the people of Tunisia over the past five years. He established the presidency of Tunisia as a democratic institution and will be known for it. His legacy will live on for generations and generations. This is not a sad moment, but a moment where the people of Tunisia will see the democratic system they have made together at work.’

Not only were Professor Rejeb’s words powerful, but a reminder of the struggle and success of the Tunisian people in achieving such independence and democratic freedom gave so much more meaning to the Tunisian holiday that fell on this fateful day, July 25th – Republic Day. In 1956, the National Assembly of Tunisia dissolved the monarchy, and Habib Bourguiba became the first president, just a year after gaining independence from France. Over the next 53 years, only Bourguiba and Ben Ali would fill that role – Bourguiba taking it from the monarchy, and Ben Ali in a peaceful coup d’état from Bourguiba. In 2011, protests poured out from the impoverished interior of Tunisia, and in only 28 days, Ben Ali had successfully been displaced. While a process of democratization began in Tunisia, the movement spread across North Africa and the Middle East through social media, now known as the Arab Springs. While the effects of this movement are still being felt, Tunisia was the only revolt which can be considered a success, with Beji Caid Essebi being elected in 2014 after 3 years of Tunisian civil society developing the constitution and institutions to uphold a democratic society. Our goal this week was to understand how this success came to be and what challenges do they continue to face in the consolidation of democracy, yet now we come face to face with the Tunisian Democratic Spirit.

Brian Rusch, to the left, having just asked a question to the Former Prime Minister, center, along with Professor Lo, right

‘We are proud of our Tunisia.’ Amina Magouri, consultant and Conseil International des Femmes Entrepreneurs (CIFE) president in El Kef said only two days ago. ‘The old Tunisia may have been easier to live in, we may have been better off, but this is Our Tunisia we are making.’ I find myself in Tunisia between July 21 and 27 to attend A Week of Insights and Experiences into the Democratization Process in Tunisia with the summer abroad program Duke in the Arab World, representing the Duke Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS) and Duke Association for the Middle East (DAME). Together with students from Duke and UC, we have met and discussed with the true change-makers of the past decade of Tunisia – prime ministers and party leaders, civil servants and entrepreneurs, civil society developers, activists, the writers of the new constitution,… the list is inexhaustible. But what also has been inexhaustible is their enthusiasm and hope for the future.
Nouha Chaouachi, professor of law and our speaker at the time of President Essebi’s death, when asked about her thoughts moments after Professor Rejeb’s address, discussed Essebi’s legacy, ‘He lived through all three governments of Tunisia: he rose with Bourguiba, briefly participated in Ben Ali’s regime before leaving the party after seeing the corruption, and then ushered in a new democratic era.’ He saw Tunisia from its independent conception through democratic freedom. He was the right man at the right time, a clever and charismatic politician who knew Tunisia and its people, and cleverly walked between the lines of terrorism, Islamism, and authoritarianism prevalent across the region. ‘My trust is in the people of Tunisia. I believe in this new system, and the wisdom behind those within it. If this was the old regime, we would never have received updates on the president’s health. If Ben Ali had died, it would have been catastrophic.’

Professor Lo, director of Duke in the Arab World, in center with the Vice Prime minister of Tunisia in the board room of the Prime Minister’s Palace, The Kasbah.Our two main hosts: Professor Rejeb Abdelsatter of the Universite de Carthage and Anis Dakhli, director of the Bardo Institute to the far left respectively.

For the man – الله يرحمه – God Bless his Soul. For politics – the creation of the new Tunisia is coming to a close. Muhamed Ennaceur, the head of parliament and himself 85, has been sworn in as the interim president. The presidential election will take place on September 15th, only two months earlier then the already established November 10th presidential election. The candidates are in place. A new generation is in line to take the place of this old guard, and the next age of Tunisian Democracy will be ushered in. The Consolidation of Tunisia’s Democracy is coming to a close, a period which Dr. Riadh Bn Jelili, head of Research and Country Risk at Dhaman and founder of the Bardo Institute, argues comes with social, political, and economic solidification and impact. Essebi’s death does not come with cries of shock, but like the cry of the child in his compound, cries of freedom. Tunisians are free for the first time in over a decade, and it is not the faith in a single man they must have, but faith in their fellow citizens and the systems they have created – and if my time here has proven anything to me, their trust is well placed.

Duke in the Arab World 2019 group gathered around the Former Prime of Tunisia, Ali Larayedh

Duke team in the Tunisian Parliament along with Congressman Oussama Sghaaier