Tunisia’s autocratic former president,Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali,fled to Saudi Arabia in 2011 after a popular uprising, has died aged 83.The revolution that led to his downfall inspired uprisings in neighbouring countries that came to be viewed as the Arab Spring.
Ben Ali became president in November 1987 after Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern Tunisia and president-for-life, was deemed to be too senile to rule. Bourguiba had appointed Ben Ali prime minister,a popular, bloodless palace coup – “The Change” – followed.
He developed ties with the European Union, Tunisia’s main trading partner. Foreign investment, manufacturing and tourism all increased, but unemployment remained high.Despite Ben Ali’s relatively liberal social and economic outlook, progress towards effective multiparty democracy was slow, and human rights abuses were reported, particularly towards Islamic activists.
He was born into a modest family in Hammam Sousse, a coastal town in the north-east, when Tunisia was still a French protectorate.At the Sousse secondary school, he joined the anti-French resistance, working for the regional Neo Destour party. This earned him expulsion and a short prison term.
He then moved to France, where he graduated from the military academy at St Cyr, near Paris, then the artillery school at Châlons-sur-Marne, before continuing his military education in the US. On his return to Tunisia, he joined military intelligence. He served as Tunisia’s military attache in Morocco for three years from 1974, and was then appointed a full general, the highest rank in Tunisia’s 25,000-strong army.
In the first multicandidate presidential elections, in 1999, Ben Ali won an official majority of 99.44% of the votes. In May 2002 he held a referendum to change the constitution so that he could serve a fourth term. He was re-elected in October 2004, officially taking 94.48% of the vote and his party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally, won 152 seats in the 189-seat parliament.
In November 2009 he was elected to a fifth five-year term, with a vote that dropped just below 90%. He criticised claims that the elections were fraudulent.
As he approached his downfall, Ben Ali dithered. On 28 December 2010 he called the protesters “extremists and mercenaries” and warned of “firm” punishment, but then tried to appease them by reshuffling his cabinet and promising to create 300,000 extra jobs. Only days before leaving Tunisia, he said that he would not change the constitution, which implied that he planned to remain president until 2014. Then, on 26 January, he fled, first to Malta under Libyan protection and then to Jeddah.
In 2014 Essebsi became Tunisia’s first freely elected president. He died in July this year and Mohamed Ennaceur took over as interim president. In the recent election, a supporter of Ben Ali won 4% of the vote.
Ben Ali remained in Saudi Arabia, where he was being treated for prostate cancer. He is survived by his wife, their two daughters and son, and by three daughters from his first marriage.
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali,born 3 September 1936; died 19 September 2019.