Tunisia’s ousted president Ben Ali dies in Saudi exile

Strongman fled in 2011 as people rose in revolt that inspired uprisings across Middle East

Former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali arrives in Rades stadium where he delivered his speech on the 50th anniversary of independence of Tunisia from France on March 20th, 2006. File photograph: Getty

Former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali arrives in Rades stadium where he delivered his speech on the 50th anniversary of independence of Tunisia from France on March 20th, 2006. File photograph: Getty

 

Tunisia’s Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, whose overthrow in a 2011 uprising triggered the “Arab Spring” revolutions, died in exile in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, days after a free presidential vote in his homeland.

His funeral will take place on Friday in Saudi Arabia, said his family lawyer, Mounir Ben Salha.

“It is the end of dictators like him. We cannot forget that he destroyed our country . . . he gave orders to kill civilians in protests in 2011,” said Imad Layouni, an unemployed 26-year-old in a Tunis coffee shop.

Ben Ali fled Tunisia in January 2011 as his compatriots – many of them angered after a vegetable seller set himself on fire a few weeks earlier in protest at the police – rose up against his oppressive rule in a revolution that inspired other uprisings in the Middle East and led to a democratic transition at home.

On Sunday, they voted in an election that featured candidates from across the political spectrum, sending two political outsiders through to a second round vote unthinkable during Ben Ali’s two decades in power.

However, while Tunisians 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 4 per cent of the vote.

“It is a sign of the intolerance in a country, which claims to be a democracy, that he died in Saudi Arabia,” said Salwa Riahi, a doctor in Tunis.

Political dissent

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.

On Sunday, by contrast Tunisians chose between 26 candidates including both Ben Ali’s own former supporter Mr Moussi and an ex-political prisoner running for the Islamist Ennahda party, which he banned. – Reuters