Condolences poured in from the region and beyond as Tunisian government declares seven days of mourning following the death of Bejii Caid Essebsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, who died at the age of 92 years old.
In a ceremony hours after the death of the ex-President on Thursday, Mohamed Ennaceur, the head of parliament, was sworn in as interim president.
Ennaceur, 85, will lead the country until presidential elections are held on September 15, according to the Independent Electoral Commission. The presidential vote was originally scheduled for November 17.
Prime Minister Youssef Chahed declared a seven-day mourning period and ordered flags at state institutions to be lowered to half-mast.
State news agency TAP reported that cultural and sports events have been halted in the country until further notice.
One of the world’s oldest leaders, Essebsi died on Thursday morning at the Tunis military hospital, where he was taken the night. It was the third time in recent weeks that he had been hospitalised; his funeral has been planned for Saturday.
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 attacks.
Drafted in as prime minister in 2011 after the toppling of long-time ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during the so-called Arab Spring uprising, Essebsi was elected president three years later, becoming the country’s first directly elected head of state after its Arab Spring uprising.
As prime minister, he helped draft a new democratic constitution guaranteeing fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and preparing Tunisia for free elections.
He also co-brokered an historic power-sharing deal between his Nidaa Tounes movement and Islamist party Ennahda that helped to steady the country, as other parts of the region such as Syria, Yemen or Libya struggled with upheaval and violence.
In recognition of their role, Tunisian civil society groups won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.
Though Tunisia remained a democratic exception in a troubled region, critics accused Essebsi of attempting a dynastic handover to his son, rowing back on some post-revolution freedoms, and failing to support a truth commission seeking justice for the victims of authoritarian rule.
Essebsi recently announced he would not run in the election scheduled for November, saying a younger person should lead the country.