The Associated PressTUNIS (AP) — Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, the North African country’s first democratically elected leader and a symbol of the generation of Tunisians who shook off French rule in the 1950s, died Thursday. He was 92.
In a hasty ceremony hours after Essebsi died at a military hospital in Tunis, the leader of parliament took over as interim president. However, Essebsi’s death while still in office could lead to new power struggles in the only country to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings with a functioning democracy and relative stability.
The government declared seven days of mourning, as condolences poured in from several Arab countries and the United Nations, A funeral is planned for Saturday.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Essebsi was “a pivotal figure” in Tunisia’s history who “was instrumental in successfully steering the country through its historic and peaceful transition to democracy.”
“President Essebsi was a Tunisian pioneer, an Arab and African trailblazer, and a global leader,” the United Nations chief said in a statement.
Heir to Tunisia’s founding father, Essebsi emerged from retirement at age 88 to win office in 2014 in the wake of the country’s Arab Spring revolt.
He presented his centrist Nida Tounes movement as a bulwark against rising Islamic fundamentalism and against the political chaos that rocked Tunisia after the “jasmine revolution” overthrew a longtime dictator and unleashed similar protests for democracy throughout the region.
Essebsi was seen as a unifying figure, but was ultimately unable to bring prosperity or lasting calm to a country beset by economic crises and fending off sporadic deadly terror attacks.
Under the Tunisian Constitution, parliament president Mohamed Ennaceur should serve as interim president for 45 to 90 days while a new election is organized.
In a brief speech after he took the oath of office, Ennaceur called on Tunisians “to strengthen your unity and solidarity so that the country can pursue its march toward progress.”
However, questions about the legitimacy of Ennaceur assuming the presidency could arise because the Constitutional Court was supposed to confirm the office was vacant. But the court itself doesn’t exist yet because lawmakers disagree over who its members should be.