Profile: Ben Ali, president-for-life no more

Confronted with an unprecedented uprising, Tunisia’s authoritarian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country for 23 years, fled the country on Friday. France24.com takes a look at a political fixture whose future appears uncertain.


“I listen, I reflect, I act”, says Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the man who ruled Tunisia for 23 years, on the website of the Tunisian presidency.

When Ben Ali made a televised speech on Thursday evening, even his harshest critics hoped he was finally living up to the motto. After weeks of violent protests in which rights groups say 66 people were killed, Ben Ali, who ruled the North African nation with an increasingly tight grip for over two decades, promised to drop plans to seek re-election, and ordered police to stop firing on protesters. “Enough of this violence,” he said. “I have understood you.”

But another twist in Tunisia’s crisis came Friday evening when Ben Ali fled the country, leaving his prime minister as interim president, and marking a dramatic interruption in what his critics feared would be an ever longer hold onto power.

A senile leader and an ambitious prime minister

Ben Ali rose to the presidency in 1987, promising to modernise the country and push democratic reforms. A member of the ruling RDC (Democratic Constitutional Rally) party, the 74-year-old handled a string of high profile posts, including minister of national security and minister of the interior, before being appointed prime minister. Just six weeks into the job, he had doctors declare his benevolent predecessor, president-for-life and founder of modern Tunsia Habib Bourguiba, senile and unfit for office. The manoeuvre has been described as a medical coup d’état, but is also praised as the country’s “quiet revolution”.

Ben Ali was initially popular both at home and abroad, seen as driving a strong economy, keeping a tough stance on Islamic extremism, and pushing for social development – especially education and women’s rights. He scrapped the president-for-life rule and was voted back into power in 1989 for a first mandate and then again in 1994 and in 1999.

But he was hardly a shining example of democratic rule. In 1989 and 1994, Ben Ali was the sole candidate, and in 1999 and 2004, his “adversaries” were figureheads. Besides, at up to 99.9 per cent, his scores were impossibly high. Western powers started to raise eyebrows.

Impossibly popular

Ben Ali confirmed his dictatorial approach to democracy in 2002, when a referendum on a new constitution allowed him to extend his rule until 2014. According to official results, 99 per cent of the population voted in favour of the constitutional change. Ben Ali went on to pull off landslide wins in two more elections, both of them criticised by human rights groups and the opposition as unfair.

Ben Ali had already started tightening his grip on power in the early nineties, the rationale being that the country needed a strong leader to fight a fundamentalist threat. But while whispers of discontent grew louder over the years, most Tunisians remained content with the stability he brought – not least since neighbouring Algeria was struggling through Islamic uprisings and brutal civil wars.

For many foreigners, Ben Ali's Tunisia was first and foremost a sunny holiday resort that welcomed thousands of Europeans every year.

A long time coming

Despite complaints from opposition leaders and rights campaigners that the authorities were repressing free speech and jailing political opponents, it was not until 2000 that Ben Ali’s regime was described as “authoritarian” by foreign human rights organisations.

But when protests broke out in mid-December of last year, after a young graduate committed suicide by setting himself alight because he couldn’t find a job, Ben Ali had to face nationwide unrest for the first time.

He initially blamed the demonstrations on “terrorists”, ordering a police crackdown on street protesters and tightening control of popular websites, especially social networks like Facebook, in the hope of stifling the growing movement.

His conciliatory address on Thursday, in which he ordered police to stop using real bullets, unblocked websites and promised political reform – even admitting that he mishandled the situation –, came as a shock to both Tunisians and outsiders.

Barely 24 hours later Tunisia's long-time ruler had been forced from power, leaving behind a country in the throes of turmoil and a people pondering a future without him.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning