Tunisia’s President dies leaving fears of power vacuum

Tunisia’s President Béji Caïd Essebsi died on Thursday at the age of 93 after he was hospitalized with a severe illness in late June leaving Tunisia in a power vacuum ahead of elections.

Essebsi is Tunisia’s first democratically elected president following the Arab Spring revolution of 2011.

A government statement called him one of Tunisia’s “greatest men and one of those who contributed the most to building it.”

A seven-day mourning was decreed in Tunisia and flags were put at half-mast. According to the Foreign Ministry, Essebsi’s funerals will take place on Saturday.

The president of the Parliament, Mohamed Ennaceur, took oath of office before members of the parliament bureau as interim president awaiting the election of a new head of state.

Concerns had been growing about a potential power vacuum in Tunisia ahead of the November elections after the president was hospitalized three times in recent weeks.

Tunisia’s constitution, adopted in 2014, provides two measures in such a case either 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.

Still recovering from 60 years of dictatorship, Tunisian society remains fractured. Politically, secularists, including vocal leftists and Arab nationalists, contend with Islamists, who won about 28 percent of the vote in the 2014 legislative elections.

Socially, a rich elite lives in the coastal cities at a far remove from the poor, underdeveloped inland regions, where the revolution began and where popular unrest continues.

Essebsi has called for reconciliation by emphasizing patriotism above party politics. Among the projects he left unfinished were plans for a sculpture of Hannibal in Carthage.

In one of his last speeches, on April 6, during the Nidaa Tounes party congress, Essebsi spoke for about 40 minutes without notes, directing jibes at Ennahda and making the crowd laugh.

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