By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia’s 92-year-old president, Beji Caid Essebsi, who helped guide the North African country's transition to democracy after a 2011 revolution, died on Thursday and the country set in train a process toward picking his successor.
Parliament Speaker Mohamed Ennaceur was sworn in as interim president in keeping with the constitution, to smooth a transition of power ahead of a presidential election in September.
Essebsi, a leading figure in the country's fortunes since the popular uprising eight years ago, was hospitalised late last month for a week after suffering what authorities called a severe health crisis.
His death was announced in a statement from the presidency, which said the president had died at the military hospital in Tunis on Thursday morning.
A state funeral for Essebsi is to be held Saturday and the prime minister declared seven days of national mourning.
The country's electoral commission announced later that the presidential election would be held on Sept. 15, two months earlier than previously scheduled.
A parliamentary vote is set for Oct. 6.
The presidency urged Tunisians to unite for the good of the nation.
The country, birthplace of the Arab Spring revolts against dictatorship in the region, has been hit by occasional unrest over high unemployment and by several deadly Islamist militant attacks.
"We are sad today about the death of our president but proud that ... there will not be a vacuum in this young democracy ... The country has a new president in a short time today," local journalist Zied Krichen said.
The coming elections will be the third set of polls in which Tunisians have been able to vote freely since the 2011 uprising.
Essebsi rose to prominence after the overthrow of veteran autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, which was followed by Arab Spring uprisings against authoritarian leaders across the Middle East, including in nearby 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.
"After the revolution, the president led the people to avoid conflict, led the democratic transition and was keen to build and complete the constitutional institutions," the presidency statement said.
Analyst Ibrahim Ouslati said the death of Essebsi, one of the world's oldest leaders, was not likely to destabilise politics.
"I don't think there will be any problem because Tunisians have a constitution that clearly shows that the speaker of the parliament occupies the position temporarily," he told Reuters.
"The political elite has enough awareness to manage it wisely like any democratic country."
Tunisia has been hailed as the only democratic success of the Arab Spring uprisings, with a new constitution, free elections and a coalition government of moderate Islamist and secular parties in a region otherwise struggling with upheaval.
But political progress has not been matched by economic advances. Unemployment stands at about 15%, up from 12% in 2010, due to weak growth and low investment.
Essebsi's death comes at a time of fresh attempts to replace dictatorships with democracy in the Middle East.
The armed forces of neighbouring Algeria and Sudan ousted long-serving rulers of those countries after mass protests. But it remains unclear whether greater freedoms will result.
Rached Ghannouchi, influential leader of Tunisia's moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, said Essebsi had presided over a smooth evolution toward democracy by promoting inclusive politics.
Essebsi faced criticism, however, that he was seeking a return to a strong state with power concentrated in the presidency, whose role is limited to foreign and defence policies under the new constitution.
Critics also accused him of seeking a dynastic handover to his son and failing to support a truth commission seeking justice for the victims of authoritarian rule.
Essebsi, who served as a speaker of parliament under Ben Ali, denied all such accusations.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara, additional reporting by mohamed argoubi; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry)