TUNIS — Maya Jribi, the first female leader of a political party in Tunisia and a tenacious supporter of democracy under the country’s dictators well before the Arab Spring, died on May 19 at her home in a suburb of Tunis. She was 58.
The cause was colon cancer, her sister Najla Jribi said.
Ms. Jribi was an opposition figure during the long autocratic regimes of both Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown in early 2011 in an upheaval that began the wave of uprisings across the Middle East known as the Arab Spring.
That same year, after the revolution, she was sent to parliament in the nation’s first democratic election, which brought to power the once-suppressed Islamist party, Ennahda. There she became a strong secular voice, leading protests against efforts to enshrine Islamic law in the new constitution and took part in the parliamentary debate that led to its adoption in 2014.
The efforts of secular voices were fairly successful: The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and draws a line between politics and civil society.
Ms. Jribi became widely known throughout Tunisia and abroad. Thousands of people, including political leaders from across the spectrum, turned out for her funeral on May 20.
Ms. Jribi was nicknamed Maya the Bee for her seeming ability to be everywhere at once, traveling constantly to demonstrations or meetings in her small green Peugeot. “She was always busy with the party, going to a place a day, campaigning, protesting another day for freedoms,” said Safia Mestiri, a longtime friend.
Maya Jribi was born on Jan. 29, 1960, in Bou Arada, in southwest Tunisia. Her father worked at the Ministry of Agriculture, and her mother was a homemaker.
“Our parents taught us rigor,” Ms. Jribi once said, “and to never think something is due for us, to always deserve what we wanted.”
When she was still a child, her family moved to Radès, a suburb of Tunis.
Ms. Jribi studied biology and geology at the University of Sfax, on the eastern coast. There she became politically active, joining the student union and the Tunisian League of Human Rights.
Several years after graduating, Ms. Jribi began working for opposition newspapers, and in 1983, with Ahmed Najib Chebbi, she helped establish the secularist Progressive Socialist Rally, which was soon renamed the Progressive Democratic Party.
Mr. Bourguiba had held power for a quarter-century and was opening the door a bit to other parties. But it took five years for the Progressive Democratic Party to gain legal recognition. Mr. Bourguiba’s successor, Mr. Ben Ali, and his party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally, won 99 percent of the vote in 1989, prompting allegations that the vote had been marred by fraud. The Progressive Democrats boycotted subsequent elections.
In 2005, Mr. Chebbi went on a hunger strike with eight representatives of other parties to protest government pressure on journalists, lawyers and human rights advocates. The hunger strike helped unite a fragmented opposition.
Ms. Jribi took over as party leader in 2006. Soon afterward the regime closed her party’s offices, and she joined another hunger strike, refusing food for 33 days. The experience left her in poor health for years.
“The doctor came two weeks after she started the strike,” her friend Ms. Mestiri said. “He told her she was already a bit too fragile to continue, she was so featherweight. I told her to stop — we could have replaced her with someone. She told me, ‘I always finish my battles.’ ”
Ms. Jribi’s party merged with another to form Al Joumhouri, which succeeded in winning only one parliamentary seat in the last election, in 2014. She stepped down as party leader last year, citing ill health.
Ms. Jribi was a defender of women’s rights. Along with pushing for equality between the sexes in the constitution, she favored quotas for women in politics and other fields.
“We had heated debates on this because I was against the quotas policy,” Ms. Jribi’s sister Najla said. “But Maya used to say that even if she did not want them for herself, she thought society needed these laws to move forward.”
In addition to her sister Najla, Ms. Jribi’s survivors include two other sisters, Souha Khassiba and Sana Ben Ghorbel, and a brother, Nizar Jribi.
In a statement after the death, President Beji Caid Essebsi hailed Ms. Jribi’s dedication to “democracy, freedom, justice, equality and faith in the civil state.”
Ms. Mestiri called Ms. Jribi a role model for Tunisian women.
“She was a constant fighter, and she used to talk to other women as if she was their equal, not as a top-down member of the elite,” she said.
“She left a vacuum after her death,” Ms. Mestiri added, “because the country still needs people who know the value of liberty and who fought for it before the revolution.”