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Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisian despot whose ouster helped spark Arab Spring, dies at 83

Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 1987.
Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 1987. (AFP via Getty Images)
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Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian despot whose ouster in 2011 after a public uprising exposed long-simmering public rage against corruption, economic tumult and dictatorial rule and sparked the Arab Spring, a revolt that ricocheted across North Africa and the Middle East, died Sept. 19 in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. He was 83.

His lawyer, Mounir Ben Salha, confirmed his death to the Associated Press. Mr. Ben Ali was being treated for prostate cancer.

Mr. Ben Ali and his family fled from the capital city of Tunis on Jan. 14, 2011, to Saudi Arabia, after weeks of protests over high unemployment, rising food prices, corruption and political repression. The most visible symbol of anti-government anger became the self-immolation of a street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, to protest corruption.

Security forces wielding machine guns and clubs were unable to crush thousands of nonviolent demonstrators who flooded the capital’s broad avenues. Mr. Ben Ali’s lack of support from the Tunisian army, which declined to fire on the citizenry, was a crucial factor in his plummet from power.

His downfall, after more than 23 years as president, was widely credited as a transformative moment in the region and sent a wave of revolutionary fervor coursing through the streets of Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Jordan and Libya, among other nations. Unable to stop anti-government protests, embattled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi were forced from office. (Gaddafi was killed in October 2011.)

Mr. Ben Ali’s government was ranked among the most brutal in the region, according to Amnesty International and other experts.

Noureddine Jebnoun, a Tunisian-born scholar specializing in the Middle East and North Africa at Georgetown University, said in a 2012 interview that Mr. Ben Ali encouraged a “thug state” with contempt for human rights and a bloated security apparatus.

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The regime, Jebnoun said, was “characterized by numerous human rights violations, total lack of freedom of press and freedom of association, and only the barest facade of political pluralism.”

Mr. Ben Ali, a burly, dark-haired man with a stern bearing, was Tunisia’s second leader since independence from France in 1956.

He held the rank of general but never an operational command that would have earned him allegiance from the quasi-independent military, Jebnoun said. He held various defense and diplomatic portfolios over the years, but as a founder of Tunisia’s military security agency, his chief business was to spy on his countrymen.

The industrialized West initially greeted Mr. Ben Ali as a savior when, six weeks into his job as prime minister, he led a bloodless coup that toppled President Habib Bourguiba in November 1987. Bourguiba, a lawyer and anti-colonial resistance hero, had oriented his country with the West, but his erratic behavior undermined his political support.

At the time, Mr. Ben Ali essentially declared Bourguiba senile and ushered the former “president for life,” who was in his mid-80s, into retirement.

Although Mr. Ben Ali was widely known for his violent crackdowns and mass arrests of perceived threats to his rule, he oversaw a brief liberalization of his country’s repressive laws and tore down the personality cult that Bourguiba had encouraged.

Tunisia, a tiny Mediterranean country squeezed between oil-rich Algeria and Libya, remained a favorite winter destination for wealthy Europeans and aligned itself with the West in the fight against Islamist terrorism.

Yet the veneer of a republic — on what was in reality an authoritarian state with a secular gloss and a rare degree of freedom for women — continued to be stripped away under Mr. Ben Ali.

“Freedom of expression, association and assembly remained severely restricted,” Amnesty International wrote in 2010. “Government critics, including journalists, human rights defenders and student activists, were harassed, threatened and prosecuted. Hundreds of people were convicted following unfair trials on terrorism-related charges. Torture and other ill-treatment continued to be reported, and prisoners were subjected to harsh prison conditions. At least two death sentences were imposed, but the government maintained a moratorium on executions.”

Mr. Ben Ali maintained a tight grip on the intelligence services and took a huge slice of the economy for personal gain. He altered the constitution to circumvent the three-term limit on the presidency and remain in office for life. He was elected to a fifth term in 2009, receiving just under 90 percent of the vote.

His approach, said Jebnoun, was to “terrorize Tunisians, telling them it’s either me or the vacuum, it’s either me or the Islamists.”

Although Mr. Ben Ali presented himself as a champion of foreign investment and the tourism trade, economic growth in Tunisia was uneven. Poverty and despair was particularly rampant in the country’s interior.

His reputation was further tarnished by the personal excesses of his family. The president’s second wife, Leila Trabelsi, was 20 years his junior, and her unremitting embrace of a lavish lifestyle earned her the distinction of being “the Imelda Marcos of the Arab world.”

The Trabelsis infiltrated the economic life of the country and became gatekeepers to anyone seeking to do business in Tunisia. “Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage,” then-U.S. Ambassador Robert F. Godec wrote in a 2008 cable released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

Mr. Ben Ali’s son-in-law, businessman Mohammad Sakher el-Materi, came under public scrutiny after WikiLeaks published diplomatic cables that described a dinner at his beachfront compound that included ice cream flown in from France and a chicken-devouring pet tiger named Pasha that he kept in a cage.

Increasingly, conspicuous consumption of the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families threw into sharp relief the privilege enjoyed by the few in power and the privation of the vast majority of Tunisians.

The surging violence in late 2010 quickly grew from a movement of poor and working-class communities — symbolized by a high-school-educated vegetable trader who set himself aflame to protest government policies — to include a professional class that had tired of one-man rule.

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was born Sept. 3, 1936, in Hammam Sousse, a town on the coast of northern Tunisia, which was then a French protectorate.

His first wife, Naima Kefi, was the daughter of a Tunisian army general who held a high position in the post-independence government. Mr. Ben Ali studied at the prestigious Saint-Cyr military academy in France and underwent further training in security and intelligence in the United States.

He headed Tunisian military security from 1964 to 1974, then was sent to Morocco as military attache and Poland as ambassador before rising to national security jobs of increasing power. He helped lead crackdowns in 1978 on labor groups and in 1984 on riots over increases in food prices and other austerity measures.

He divorced his first wife in the early 1990s and married his longtime mistress. In addition to Trabelsi, survivors include three children each from both marriages, the AP reported.

In mid-December 2010, protests over lack of jobs soon gave way to full-scale rioting in Tunis and other cities that authorities tried to repress with increasing violence. More than 200 people died in clashes, which Mr. Ben Ali attributed to radicals and Islamist extremists seeking to spread chaos.

Although internal security forces shot at demonstrators, the military chief of staff refused, sending a clear signal that Mr. Ben Ali’s days were numbered. The European Union said it was freezing assets controlled by the former leader and his family. The Tunisian government also issued an international arrest warrant for Mr. Ben Ali and members of his family on corruption charges involving ill-gotten money and real estate.

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