Tunisian president toppled in seminal Arab Spring event has died, his lawyer says

Tunisia's ousted autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali died in exile in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, days after a free presidential election in his homeland, his family lawyer said.

Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, served as president from 1989 to 2011, when he was ousted

In this Oct. 11, 2009, file photo, then-Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali waves from his car as he arrives at campaign rally in Rades, outside Tunis, Tunisia. Ben Ali was exiled in Saudi Arabia after the fall of his government. (Hassene Dridi/The Associated Press)

Tunisia's ousted autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali died in exile in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, days after a free presidential election in his homeland, his family lawyer said.

"Ben Ali just died in Saudi Arabia," the lawyer, Mounir Ben Salha, told Reuters by phone.

Ben Ali fled Tunisia in January 2011 as his compatriots rose up against his oppressive rule in a revolution that inspired other Arab Spring uprisings abroad and led to a democratic transition at home.

A former security chief, Ben Ali had run Tunisia for 23 years, taking power when, as prime minister in 1987, he declared president-for-life Habib Bourguiba medically unfit to rule.

In office, he sought to stifle any form of political dissent while opening up the economy, a policy that led to rapid growth but also fuelled grotesque inequality and accusations of brazen corruption, not least among his own relatives.

During that era, his photograph was displayed in every shop, school and government office from the beach resorts of the Mediterranean coast to the impoverished villages and mining towns of Tunisia's hilly interior.

On the few occasions his rule was put to the vote, he faced only nominal opposition and won re-election by more than 99 per cent.

Ben Ali's rise began in the army after Bourguiba won Tunisia's independence from France in 1956. He was head of military security from 1964 and of national security from 1977.

Ben Ali, right, reviews an honour guard in 1997. Tunisians chafed after years in which dissent was not tolerated and elections were not free and fair. (Reuters)

After a three-year stint as ambassador to Poland, he was called back to his old security job in 1984 to quell riots over bread prices. Then a general, he was made interior minister in 1986 and prime minister in 1987.

It took him less than three weeks to arrange a new promotion to the top job, bringing in a team of doctors to declare Bourguiba senile, meaning he would automatically take over as head of state.

Street vendor's suicide sparks weeks of protests

Wedged between Moammar Gadhafi's Libya and an Algeria thrust into civil war between the army-backed government and Islamist militants, Ben Ali's Tunisia followed the post-independence path of secularism and openness to the outside.

But within, critics said it was a police state where few dared challenge an all-powerful government. In a country where many had experienced life under democracy elsewhere, Ben Ali's oppressive state was reason to chafe.

Meanwhile, the elite were accumulating wealth in their extravagant seaside villas, Ben Ali's early years of populist promises to the poor yielded them little. The lavish lifestyle of his wife, Leila Trabelsi, and her clique of rich relatives, came to symbolize the corruption of an era.

Tunisians place banners and a photo of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose suicide sparked countrywide protests, on the prime minister's car during a protest in Tunis in January 2011, the month Ben Ali left the country. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

Out in the provinces, in the shabby mining towns of the south and the rural villages without running water, anger was growing, leading to a small protest movement in 2008, sometimes called "the little revolution."

Eight years on from the real uprising, the conditions of life are still tough in those areas, with unemployment higher than in 2010 and public services seeming to have deteriorated.

Tunisians often complain that living standards have dropped since the revolution, and speak of life under Ben Ali as more materially comfortable. But few speak with nostalgia of his style of rule, or say they want an end to democracy.

For Ben Ali, the sudden end came when a desperate vegetable seller in the humble town of Sidi Bouzid set himself alight in December 2010 after police confiscated his barrow.

Mohammed Bouazizi's funeral was attended by tens of thousands of furious people, sparking weeks of ever bigger protests in which scores of people were killed.

By mid-January 2011, Ben Ali had had enough, and boarded a plane for Saudi Arabia.

A Tunisian court sentenced him in absentia later that year to 35 years in prison. He never appeared in public again.

Period of uncertainty ahead

Tunisians have endured more change this year, with President Beji Caid Essebsi — who helped guide the North African country's transition to democracy after the revolution — dying in July at the age of 92.

On Sunday, Tunisians voted in an election that featured candidates from across the political spectrum, sending two political outsiders through to a second round presidential vote unthinkable during Ben Ali's own era of power.

However, while they have enjoyed a much smoother march to democracy than citizens of the other Arab states that also rose up in 2011, many of them are economically worse off than they were under Ben Ali.

While almost all the candidates in Sunday's election were vocal champions of the revolution, one of them, Abir Moussi, campaigned as a supporter of Ben Ali's ousted government, receiving four per cent of the votes.

The final two presidential candidates each could potentially roil the country if victorious.

The powerful media mogul Nabil Karoui is currently jailed on money laundering and tax evasion allegations he says are politically motivated.

Hardline conservative professor Kais Saied, meanwhile, wants to bring back the death penalty for the first time in nearly three decades, considers homosexuality a serious crime and rejected a bill that mandated equal inheritance for women.

The date of the runoff has not yet been announced.

With files from CBC News


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?