Alexa Ben Ali: The autocrat’s anomie lit-up Arab Spring

Dhaka, Monday   21 October 2019


Ben Ali: The autocrat’s anomie lit-up Arab Spring


 Published: 11:58 PM, 20 September 2019   Updated: 12:10 AM, 21 September 2019

File Photo

File Photo

The man, an army officer as well as a politician, had ruled Tunisia for 23 years was Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. He has died in exile, Saudi Arabia, aged 83. Ben Ali was the first autocratic leader brought down by the uprisings that swept the region. His destructive works led to happen the first Arab Spring in Tunisia.


How he came to power:

Ben Ali was trained in France at the military academy of Saint-Cyr and at the artillery school at Chalon sur Marne. He also studied engineering in the United States. From 1964 to 1974 he was head of Tunisian military security, a post that brought him into top government circles. In 1974 he began a three-year term as military attach to the Tunisian embassy in Morocco.

He then returned to Tunisia to become head of national security, and in 1980 he became ambassador to Poland. After his return, he was appointed state secretary for national security in 1984 and a cabinet minister in 1985. Ben Ali had gained a reputation as a hard-liner in suppressing riots in 1978 and 1984, and in 1986 he became minister of the interior, taking an active role in rooting out the Islamic Tendency Movement, a violent fundamentalist group.

In October 1987 President Habib Bourguiba appointed him prime minister. Bourguiba, who had ruled Tunisia since its independence from France in 1956, was ill and considered by many to be unfit to continue in office, and on November 7 Ben Ali deposed him in a peaceful coup. "I needed to re-establish the rule of law, “Ben Ali told a French television channel in 1988. "The president was ill and his inner circle was harmful.”

The Rule

Ali promised reform, democracy, women's rights and education. But he failed to deliver a more free and open society. His strict control of society shored up by a vast network of spies, informers and secret police kept Ben Ali in power. He acted too slowly to stem the tide of that unexpected popular uprising.

Ben Ali was expected to favour a somewhat less secular government than Bourguiba’s, with a more moderate approach toward religious fundamentalists. As president, Ben Ali promised a gradual move towards democracy, and began to usher in a new era of human rights and democratic principles. Tunisians welcomed the change, and the legal reforms of 1987-89 included the release of political prisoners and an end to restrictions on political parties.

His first decade as president involved a big economic restructuring-backed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and an annual growth rate slightly over 4% a year. The economy was growing at about 5% a year, and health and education reforms were introduced. Ben Ali boosted women’s rights, a process continued later by his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser, whom he married in 1992.

He began to suspend political rights, muzzling the media and cracking down on human rights activists. Opponents found themselves in prison. Ben Ali’s rule was marked by familiar themes, including widespread corruption as well as widespread and sometimes deadly political repression. As president, his image was plastered for decades on billboards and buildings across the country, his face remaining strangely ageless despite the passage of time, his hair still jet-black. It seemed that only death would end his grip on power.

Poverty, unemployment, political repression turned into a vast portion during the ruling period of Ben Ali.


Muzzling the opposition

He consolidated his rule by muzzling the opposition, keeping strong control of the media and armed forces and eventually extending the number of terms he was allowed to serve under the constitution.

Ben Ali promised a move towards democracy when he became president, organising the country's first multi-candidate presidential election in 1999  and winning it with an official 99.44 percent of the vote. In May 2002 he held a referendum to change the constitution so he could serve a fourth term. A second such change then allowed for an unlimited number of mandates.

He was fond of telling foreign leaders that Tunisia, a major mass-market tourist destination for Europeans, "does not have any lessons to receive" about human rights. But rights groups regularly condemned his government, which they said held hundreds of political prisoners, although he denied this. Corruption was endemic under Ben Ali, whose close circle especially his wife's family had an iron grip on the economy.

Electoral fraud

Before his coup against Bourguiba, he promised to move Tunisia towards democracy, but instead fixed elections that he won by majorities exceeding 90%, earning the nickname “Mr.99%”.  

Ben Ali never allowed genuine political opposition to emerge and elections were manipulated: In 1989, he supposedly garnered 99.3% of the vote; in 1994, 99.9% and five years later, 99.4%.

Arab Spring and Ali’s downfall

In December 2010, a young fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, killing himself in protest of harassment by a police officer who confiscated his wares. The act of self-immolation sparked protests that soon spread throughout Tunisia. That created the Arab Spring over many nations like Egypt, Libya.

The protest was against poverty, unemployment, and political repression erupted in Tunisia, with many of the demonstrators demanding that Ben Ali resign. Dozens of protesters were killed in clashes with security forces, provoking outcry from human rights groups. In January 2011 Ben Ali made several attempts to Placate the opposition, calling the protesters “extremists and mercenaries” and warning of “firm” punishment, by expressing regret for the deaths of protesters and vowing to create jobs, control food prices, and increase political freedom. On January 13 he acknowledged popular dissatisfaction with his administration by promising to step down as president at the end of his term in 2014. However, the protests continued to intensify, and on January 14 Tunisian state media announced that the government had been dissolved and legislative elections would be held in the next six months. When that failed to quell protests, Ben Ali stepped down as president and left the country, fleeing to   Saudi Arabia.


The revolution in Tunisia inspired Egyptians and Libyans to rise up against their own dictators, and in February 2011 Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down. In Libya, the protests against Muammar Gaddafi became an armed rebellion, which finally saw the LIbyan dictator chased down and murdered by rebels in October 2011.

Earning wealth illegally 

It was widely suspected that Ben Ali and his family had built a fortune worth billions of dollars by illegally appropriating national assets and skimming wealth from most sectors of the Tunisian economy. One report claiming that he took one-and-a-half tons of gold with him to Saudi Arabia, stolen from Tunisia's central bank.

Following Ben Ali’s departure, Tunisian prosecutors opened an investigation into the finances of Ben Ali and his relatives, and Switzerland agreed to freeze any of Ben Ali’s assets in Swiss banks. Several days after opening the investigation, the Tunisian minister of justice, Lazhar Karoui Chebbi, announced that the interim government had issued an international arrest warrant for Ben Ali and several members of his family. However, Saudi Arabia, where Ben Ali remained in exile, refused Tunisia’s request to extradite the former president.



In June 2011 a Tunisian court convicted Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, in absentia of having embezzled public funds and sentenced them to 35 years in prison. The trial, which lasted only a few hours, focused on large quantities of cash and jewels found in one of Ben Ali’s palaces. In a second trial held in July, Ben Ali was convicted of smuggling drugs, guns, and archaeological objects and sentenced to 15 years in prison.


In June 2012 a military court convicted Ben Ali in absentia and gave him a life sentence for his role in the killing of protesters in southern and central Tunisia, where protests had begun in 2010. In July he received another life sentence after being convicted at a second trial for his role in the killing of protesters in northern Tunisia and Tunis.

Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy protected Mr. Ben Ali from extradition while he was prosecuted in absentia in Tunisia’s judicial system.

But while Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown by a military coup in 2013 and Libya post-Gaddafi descended into violence and disorder, Tunisia was the only Arab Spring country to emerge from the revolutions with a functioning democracy.