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The reign of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

Latest update : 2008-04-28

Ben Ali has fluctuated between progressivism and authoritarianism during his 20 years as president of Tunisia. While the nation is now among the most developed in Africa, it still has some catching up to do in the human rights arena.

Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who has been in power since November 7, 1987, has decided to stay in the running for his umpteenth mandate in the 2009 presidential elections.

Under his reign, Tunisia has become one of the greatest economic and social success stories in Africa and the Arab world. He stabilised national security as his neighbours fell prey to Islamic terrorists.

But his Achilles heel, politically speaking, remains his human rights record.

A medical coup d’état

Nearly 21 years ago, Ben Ali became president by insisting that the president at the time, Habib Bourguiba, was in such poor health as to be unable to complete his duties. Ben Ali was prime minister. This medical coup d’état is called Tunisia's “Quiet Revolution”.

Military training

Ben Ali was born on September 3, 1936, to a family of modest means in eastern Tunisia. After serving in the Tunisian army and attending the prestigious French military school in Saint-Cyr, a Paris suburb, he returned to Tunis and became director of the national police for ten years, after which he was dispatched to stints in Morocco and Spain. In 1984, he was recalled home from Poland, where had been serving as ambassador, to take the post of interior minister. Three years later, he was promoted to the post of prime minister on the heels of a bloody confrontation between Tunisian security forces and labor unions, the latter of which were mostly Islamist.

Democratic Spring

As president, Ben Ali began progressive reforms which some called a “Democratic spring";  he made peace with several political prisoners, including Habib Achour, leader of the Tunisian Confederation of Labour.  He also befriended Rachid Ghanouchi, head of Islamist “Ennahdha” (vigil) movement . He reconciled with several opposition leaders and pushed for several laws, including promoting presidency for life, as well as others prohibiting forced labour.

Ben Ali also reinforced Tunisian female emancipation.

The end of Spring

But these improvements, according to some, did not benefit the people. The Tunisian president restricted public liberty and clamped down on political opposition.

In 1989, at the time of the very first multi-party general elections, Ben Ali was elected president of the republic with 99.2% of the votes, while his cohorts snapped up nearly all the seats in Parliament.

His response to the Islamist threat was immediate: the mosques were not to open their doors beyond the normal prayer hours, and veils were prohibited at schools and workplaces.

The press is under strict police surveillance, to the point that human rights organisations have denounced the regime and its restrictions, which extend even to books and the Internet.

Ben Ali has nonetheless succeeded to make his nation one of the most Europe-friendly in the Arab world. He also managed to sustain consistent and significant growth in the nation. In 1995, Tunisia became the first nation south of the Mediterranean to sign a free trade accord with the EU.

Date created : 2008-04-28