Toppled Tunisian ruler Ben Ali dies in exile

September 20, 2019

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Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.—Reuters
Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.—Reuters

TUNIS: Former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, an autocrat who led his small North African country for 23 years before being toppled by nationwide protests that unleashed revolt across the Arab world, died on Thursday. He was 83.

Ben Ali, who had lived in Saudi Arabia since fleeing Tunisia in 2011, died in Jeddah, said his lawyer Mounir Ben Salha. The former president was receiving treatment for prostate cancer and was hospitalised last week.

Ben Ali’s ouster on Jan 14, 2011, amid Tunisia’s relatively peaceful “Jasmine Revolution” inspired what became known as the Arab Spring, a movement that saw several autocratic leaders swept from power.

Ben Ali was widely detested and convicted repeatedly of corruption in Tunisia after he went into self-imposed exile. But some loyal supporters called for his return as economic and security troubles plagued the country’s new democracy.

His death comes four days after Tunisia held a first round of presidential elections, the second democratic elections for head of state since Ben Ali’s ouster.

As president, Ben Ali’s picture was plastered for decades on billboards and buildings across the country, his face remaining strangely ageless despite the passage of time, his hair jet-black. It seemed that only death would end his grip on power.

But as revolt swept Tunisia in late 2010 and early 2011, fueled by anger over corruption, repression and unemployment, demonstrators set fire to the president’s photograph, a once-unthinkable act. His image eventually peeled off buildings and billboards nationwide like old wallpaper.

Ben Ali promoted his country of 11 million as a beach haven for European tourists and a beacon of stability in volatile North Africa. It seemed as though he had offered his people a trade-off: There was a lack of civil rights and little or no freedom of speech, but a better quality of life than in nearby countries such as Algeria and Morocco.

Tunisia’s revolution changed all that, spawning a plethora of political movements and the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring movement across the region.

Born Sept 3, 1936, near Sousse, a city of white- and sand-coloured houses on the Mediterranean, Ben Ali embarked on a career as a professional army officer. He was briefly prime minister in 1987 before setting his sights on the presidency. In a bloodless coup, Ben Ali seized power from then-president-for-life Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern-day Tunisia who set the Muslim country on a pro-Western course after independence from France in 1956. Ben Ali removed Bourguiba from office for “incompetence,” saying he had become too old, senile and sick to rule.

Ben Ali promised that his leadership would “open the horizons to a truly democratic and evolved political life.” But after a brief period of reforms, Tunisia’s political evolution stopped.

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2019