Same As The Old Boss?

Let’s start this New Year out with a success-story: Tunisia. Famously, this is the land that, so far, has emerged in best shape from the Arab Spring. That is not to say that it is not making some peculiar-looking political choices.

The fellow you see in the picture there is Mohamed Beji Qaid Essebsi, sworn in just last December 31 as Tunisian President after having won a free and fair election for the post in November. He does have links to the regime of ousted dictator Ben Ali, but that was only as Tunisia’s ambassador to Germany, and then one year as as President of the country’s lower house of parliament.

Indeed, even before that Essebsi worked closely with Habib Bourguiba, considered the father of the modern Tunisian state as it emerged independent in 1957 from French colonial rule. This fact indirectly points to what is the main questionable thing about President Essebsi for the outside observer: he 88 years old. That has to be some kind of record for the age of a head of state freely chosen by a general election.

But OK, so the people of Tunisia chose a President who might soon turn out to need replacing, from sheer natural causes: the important thing is that they did choose him. The point of the tweet is not really about the new Tunisian President, Mr. Esebbsi, but rather the proposed new Prime Minister, and this official is not chosen directly by the people but rather by the party that forms the government, which presently is called Nidaa Tounès. The vice-president of that party just announced its choice, a certain Habib Essid, 65 years old. “What we have here is an independent personality,” the VP told the press, “with competences and experience,” particularly “his knowledge in the area of security.”

A Torturer’s Knowledge of Security?

Well I should say so: Mr. Essid was the number-two official in the Ministry of the Interior of ex-dictator Ben Ali at the time of his overthrow in 2011! Just as a reminder, that is the Ministry in charge of the police, and all that the police were allowed to do to people back during what was President Ben Ali’s repressive, authoritatian state.

Now, the fact that Ben Ali was overthrown – in fact, relatively quickly and easily, especially when you compare his situation with Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria – might indicate that Mr. Essid was not so effective in his job. Of course, this Le Monde piece also notes that he was also the first Minister of the Interior right after the Revolution succeeded, so he was obviously acceptable to the new regime for some reason – perhaps he played some double-role from his powerful position within the Ministry of the Interior to help it succeed.

For now, we don’t know: there’s no further background here on just what was Essid’s role in the Revolution. All we are left with – for now – is a new Tunisian state getting off the ground democratically while having to rely so much on pre-revolutionary governing expertise that its two most powerful positions are likely to be filled by, on the one hand, an 88-year-old, and, on the other, a former high-ranking policeman in the service of the deposed dictator.

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