Riyaz Patel

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, longtime Tunisian president and the first autocrat to be ousted by the wave of demonstrations known as the Arab Spring, passed away Thursday, Tunisia’s foreign ministry has said. 

Ben Ali died in Saudi Arabia at the age of 83, several days after reports emerged that he had been hospitalised in the Saudi capital Riyadh and was in critical condition.

His lawyer, Mounir bin Salha, said on Facebook that Ben Ali died in Jeddah and that he’ll be buried Friday in Mecca. 

He had lived in exile in the Gulf kingdom since 14 January 2011, one month into protests against his 24 years of rule.

He is survived by his wife Leila and their three children, as well as by three daughters from his first marriage, Ghazwa, Dorsaf and Cyrine.

Ben Ali never served time in prison despite having been sentenced to jail by Tunisian courts in absentia for abuse of power, corruption and involuntary homicide.

The former ruler had largely disappeared from the public sphere since his overthrow, yet he had vowed in May 2019 to return to Tunisia.

“Be assured, I am coming back, God willing,” he wrote in a letter at the time.

Born on 3 September 1936 in the coastal town of Hammam Sousse, Ben Ali grew up in a middle-class household under the French colonial protectorate.

Like other Tunisian youth of the era, he was involved in the armed resistance against France and reportedly spent some time in prison.

Following Tunisia’s independence in 1956, he joined the newly formed army and over the following decades would climb up the ranks, serving as military intelligence chief and director-general of national security.

Tunisian President for Life Habib Bourguiba, right, shakes hands in 1986 in Tunis with his prime minister, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, left (AFP)

In the 1980s, he was named the minister of defence, interior minister and eventually prime minister by Habib Bourguiba, the “founding father” of independent Tunisia.

But in November 1987, a mere year after becoming premier, Ben Ali toppled Bourguiba in a bloodless coup after doctors declared the then-president to be incapacitated, at a time when the country’s economy was struggling under high inflation and debt.

Over the next two decades, Ben Ali maintained a strong grip on the presidency despite his initial vow to further democratise the country’s political system.

The self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December 2010 over economic hardships was the spark that launched the revolt against Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule and inspired other popular movements across the region and the world.

Nearly nine years after Ben Ali’s downfall, Tunisia is a very different place.

In 2011, Ben Ali and his wife were sentenced to 35 years in prison and tens of millions of dollars in fines for theft and unlawful possession of drugs, weapons, archaeological artefacts and foreign currency.

Tunisian employees of the Prime ministry remove portraits of Ben Ali on 17 January 2011, three days after he fled the country following a month of protests (AFP)
Tunisian employees of the prime ministry remove portraits of Ben Ali on 17 January 2011, three days after he fled the country following a month of protests (AFP)

A year later, Ben Ali would receive a life sentence – once again in absentia – over the killing of 43 protesters during the uprising. He never spent a day in prison for his crimes as president.

Ben Ali’s death comes mere days after the first round of voting in a presidential election set after the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi in July.

Whoever wins in a second round of votes will become Tunisia’s second freely elected head of state since the country’s independence.

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