CARTHAGE, Tunisia (Reuters) – Tunisia bid farewell to its first democratically elected president Beji Caid Essebsi on Saturday at a state funeral attended by foreign leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Essebsi, who helped guide the North African country’s transition to democracy after the 2011 revolution, died aged 92 on Thursday.
Other dignitaries attending his funeral in the capital Tunis included Algerian President Abdelkader Ben Saleh, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and King Felipe VI of Spain, along with thousands of Tunisians.
The late president’s coffin, covered with the red and white Tunisian flag, was placed on a military truck in the palace of Carthage, about 10 kilometers from the capital.
Many roads have been closed and security forces deployed in most areas of Tunis and near the Al Jallaz cemetery.
Tunisians lined up the streets leading to the Carthage district, waving flags and chanting the national anthem.
Thousands filled the capital’s Habib Bourguiba Avenue, a focal point of the 2011 revolution that sparked uprisings across the Arab world, known as the Arab Spring.
“It is a sad day for Tunisia,” said a woman named Nabila. “We lost a great statesman who had a big role after 2011 revolution and helped unite Tunisians and ease historical differences with the Islamists.”
Hours after Essebsi’s death, parliament speaker Mohamed Ennaceur was sworn in as interim president in line with the constitution in a smooth transition of power. The electoral commission announced a presidential election for Sept. 15, two months earlier than scheduled.
A parliamentary vote is set for Oct. 6.
Essebsi rose to prominence after the overthrow of veteran autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, which was followed by Arab Spring revolts against authoritarian leaders across the Middle East and North Africa, including in Libya and Egypt.
Drafted in as premier after Ben Ali’s fall, Essebsi in 2012 founded the secular Nidaa Tounes party, now part of the governing coalition, to counter-balance the resurgence of Islamists who were suppressed under Ben Ali. Two years later, Essebsi became Tunisia’s first freely elected head of state.
Reporting By Tarek Amara; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Clelia Oziel
Image: People gather during the funeral of the Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunis, Tunisia July 27, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad