Alioua, Tunisia - Tunisians mourning President Beji Qaid Al Sebsi voiced pride on Friday at measures under way to choose his successor, saying his work guiding the country to democracy after a 2011 revolution helped make a peaceful handover of power possible.
Al Sebsi died aged 92 on Thursday, setting in motion a constitutional process toward selecting a new head of state.
Hundreds of women, men and children stood under a strong sun outside the military hospital where he died, and later watched as his coffin was taken to Carthage presidential palace under heavy security.
Many expressed respect for his role overseeing political reforms in the north African country after the overthrow of veteran autocrat Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali.
“Today we lost a father to all Tunisians,” said a woman named Salma Hbibi.
“There are no tanks in the streets, no curfew, no statements from the army,” she added. “Today we have gained a democratic state through a quiet and wonderful transition ...”
A state funeral is expected on Saturday, and international leaders including French President Emanuel Macron will attend.
“It was a sad day with the loss of our President Al Sebsi” said Moncef Marzouki, a former president and one of Al Sebsi’s most determined rivals.
“But I am also proud of this smooth transition. We are fortunate to be in an advanced path in democracy transition, we are moving to a state of law.” A few hours after the death of Al Sebsi, parliament speaker Mohammed Ennaceur was sworn in as interim president in line with the constitution. The electoral commission announced a presidential election for September 15, two months earlier than previously scheduled. A parliamentary vote is set for October 6.
The coming elections will be the third set of polls in which Tunisians have been able to vote freely since the revolution.
Al Sebsi rose to prominence after Bin Ali’s overthrow.
Drafted in as premier after Bin Ali’s fall, Al Sebsi 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 Bin Ali. Two years later, Al Sebsi became Tunisia’s first freely elected head of state.
Political progress has not been matched by economic advances. Unemployment stands at about 15 per cent, up from 12 per cent in 2010, due to weak growth and low investment.
Near Carthage palace, a young man named Nabil said: “We are deeply saddened, but I hope Tunisia will remain as consistent and cohesive as Al Sebsi wanted. Will miss you, Bajbouj,” he said, using Al Sebsi’s nickname.