Tunisia's former president Ben Ali dies in Saudi exile, leaves mixed legacy

Like most Arab nationalists and the generation of strongmen of his age, Ben Ali focused on economic and social development but he neglected to establish the bases for Western-style democracy.
Saturday 21/09/2019
A 2007 file picture of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. (AP)
23-year rule. A 2007 file picture of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. (AP)

TUNIS - Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali died September 19, nearly nine years after he left the country for exile in Saudi Arabia.

He leaves a legacy of authoritarian rule and intolerance of dissent but also a record of fairly efficient economic management, stability and moderate foreign policy.

He was unable to deal with an uprising that erupted December 17, 2010, and spread from the impoverished province of Sidi Bouzid across Tunisia after a vegetable cart vendor set himself on fire.

The last few weeks of his rule were bloody but he may have saved his country from civil strife or foreign military intervention as in Syria, Yemen and Libya by not putting up a last-ditch fight against protesters.

Out of respect for his Saudi hosts, Ben Ali kept silent as Tunisia faced the challenges of democratic transition and struggled with instability and social-economic pressures. He did not grant interviews or publish books during exile. His lawyers promised to broadcast an audio recording Ben Ali made before his death.

"I do not want to add to my homeland's woes," Ben Ali repeatedly replied when asked about his continued silence.

Ben Ali chose to be buried in Saudi Arabia, his family members said, a last message against what he seemingly saw as lack of appreciation for his contributions by the new elites in Tunisia. "I will not grant my bones to an ungrateful country," he was quoted by his daughter Nesrine in a Facebook post.

Like most Arab nationalists and the generation of strongmen of his age and political background, Ben Ali focused on economic and social development but he neglected to establish the bases for Western-style democracy and saw much of his opposition as driven by personal ambition and outside interference.

Tunisians, who express an unwavering attachment to their dearly gained freedoms, often remember the days of his rule as a period of a better standard of living than today.

His death at the age of 83 was 57 days after the passing of President Beji Caid Essebsi, 92, leaving Mohamed Ennaceur, currently interim president, as the only Tunisian leader from his generation and nationalist background.

"May God bless his soul. He was the president of the poor. I always remember him when I buy food for my family and medicine for my sick children," said Aliya Ahmed, a worker at a car hire company.

"Allah loves him. He died in Saudi Arabia and buried in Mecca, the land and the soul of our religion. If he were buried here, those black rats of politicians and their followers would had tormented him even after death,” he added.

Decades in government 

Ben Ali had a long public service career from a young army soldier to a top intelligence chief, a prime minister and then president.

Ben Ali ascended to the presidency in 1987 after a bloodless "medical coup" against President Habib Bourguiba, the first president of the republic. Bourguiba was declared "unfit to rule" for reason of senility. The forced seclusion of Bourguiba in his hometown of Monastir was to be the source of criticism for Ben Ali, who was also accused of preventing a state burial for Bourguiba when he died in April 2000.

A January 1986 file photo shows former Tunisian President Habib Ben Ali Bourguiba (R) shaking hands with his then-prime minister Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. (AFP)
Transitions. A January 1986 file photo shows former Tunisian President Habib Ben Ali Bourguiba (R) shaking hands with his then-prime minister Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. (AFP)

Ben Ali is said to have seized power shortly before the Islamists were to launch a coup. Islamists acknowledged later they had infiltrated the presidential security details and were prepared to move on Bourguiba's presidential palace.

After he became president, Ben Ali initially took steps to liberalise political life, allowed a relatively free press and forged a broad political front that included the Islamists.

However, Ben Ali quickly carried out a ruthless crackdown on Islamists, jailing thousands of militants and leaders as he accused "Islamic Movement" members of plotting to infiltrate the military and the police and shoot down his aeroplane.

He subsequently grew reluctant to embrace any form of democratic rule or free elections that would give the Islamists a chance of taking power. His restrictions on democratic organisation and free expression widened to include the secular opposition as well.

Under his rule, Tunisia went through a period of relative economic prosperity with an average GDP growth rate of 5% and the steady rise of the middle class to include about 80% of the population.

Politically, the widespread repression of the Islamists, iron-first policy and narrow tolerance of dissidents from other opposition groups led to a "political desertification" of the country and recurrent accusations of rights abuses.

Although special programmes were devised to curtail poverty, the structural deficiencies that fuelled unemployment and development imbalances remained unaddressed.

As growth slowed in Europe, Tunisia's main trade partner, the country's economy seriously deteriorated after 2008, limiting growth and leading to increased frustrations over unemployment, mostly among university graduates, and the rising cost of living.

Ben Ali, who was failed by the limited vision of his entourage and the relentless competition by his family members for economic spoils, could not ward off the mounting tide of social discontent. The very centralised system he put in place did not have enough agility and imagination to introduce political and economic changes. He tried desperately to play catch up with spreading protests.

"They misled me," were among Ben Ali's last words before he went into exile January 14, 2011, clearing the way for a democratic transition in which Islamists were to play a leading role and where economic indicators continued to deteriorate because of mismanagement and social pressure.

Mixed reactions

Ben Ali's death was shortly after the first round of presidential elections in Tunisia in which the entire political class, including many of his former foes, failed to make it to the second round.

Instead, voters' top choice for the runoff was a populist law Professor Kais Saied with no record of dissent against Ben Ali. “I was not an opposition activist," Saied recently admitted.

The second contender in the runoff, jailed media tycoon Nabil Karoui, obtained the broadcast licence of his TV channel, Nessma, from Ben Ali. His critics, especially during the campaign, have not forgiven him for saying once on the air: "Ben Ali is our affectionate father."

Most secularist leaders, including Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, conveyed their condolences to Ben Ali's family.

Chahed had said one week before Ben Ali's death that, on humanitarian grounds, the former president could return to die in his own country -- "like every Tunisian" -- should he wish to do so. He said after his death that Ben Ali could be buried at home if his family requested.

However, there was no official mourning declared in Tunisia and only the followers of Abir Moussi's staunchly anti-Islamist Free Destourian Party openly paid tribute to Ben Ali’s legacy.

"God vindicated Ben Ali as the people punished all these politicians who lied all the time about Ben Ali," said primary school teacher Samira Shaieb, an activist of the Free Destourian Party, formed of unabashed loyalists of Ben Ali.

"He left Tunisia for them. Everyone can see what they did for Tunisia and what is happening for us after him," she added.

As in all major events, Tunisians expressed their views about Ben Ali on social media.

Former Governor of the Central Bank Taoufik Baccar highlighted the economic "achievements" of Ben Ali's rule. "The personal income of Tunisians multiplied six-fold between 1987 and 2010 and inflation remained under 3.5%,” he said.

Tunisian lawyer Adel Kaaniche pointed to Ben Ali's flawed policies. "His obstinate clinging to power, the worsening of corruption during his tenure and his adoption of an obsolete development model all contributed to the rise in unemployment, especially among university graduates," he said.

Ben Ali is survived by six children; three daughters by a first marriage and two daughters and a son by his wife Leila Trabelsi, who accompanied him into exile.