Profile: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

Tunisian president flees amid a wave of deadly social protests in a dramatic end to his 23 years in power.

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down on Friday after 23 years in power and fled Tunisia [AFP]

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s long-standing president, left the country amid violent protests on 14 January 2011, after 23 years in power.

He survived such a long term as president by mixing authoritarian rule with a degree of prosperity and stability for his people.

On November 7, 1987, he toppled Habib Bourguiba, the ailing father of Tunisian independence who was by then reported to be senile, all Tunisians hailed his “bloodless, non-violent takeover.”

His supporters hailed him as the “saviour” of a rudderless country and credited him with laying the foundation for a liberal economy and with nipping in the bud the Islamist Ennahdha party.

Western governments viewed him as an effective bulwark against Islamist extremism despite criticism of his slow moves toward democracy.

Upon taking office, he scrapped the title of “president for life” created by Bourguiba and limited the number of presidential terms to three.

On the social front, he launched a “solidarity” policy, creating a special fund for the underprivileged and a social security system, while pursuing the promotion of education and women’s rights initiated by his predecessor.

Such measures earned him the support of a growing middle class. But he consolidated his rule by muzzling the opposition, keeping strong control of the media and armed forces and gradually extending the number of terms he is allowed to serve under the constitution.

Promise of democracy

Ben Ali, who is 74, was born into a modest family in the east-central town of Hammam-Sousse, at a time when Tunisia was still a French protectorate. He was 19 years old when it achieved full independence, in 1956.

A career soldier, he studied at military academies in both France and the United States.

After his military training he went into army intelligence, and was appointed minister for national security in 1985, moving up to the interior ministry the following year and the post of prime minister early in 1987.

On becoming president, he promised a gradual move towards democracy, organising the country’s first multi-candidate presidential election in 1999 – and winning it with an official majority of 99.44 per cent 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 allowed for an unlimited number of mandates.

He was overwhelmingly re-elected to a fifth five-year term in October 2009, albeit with a score which dipped for the first time just below 90 per cent.

Rights groups have regularly condemned his government, which they say holds hundreds of political prisoners, although he denies this.

Ben Ali faced an unprecedented mass revolt initially sparked by discontent over joblessness, which ended his 23 years of iron-fisted rule.

He has six children, three daughters by a first marriage and two daughters and a son by his second wife Leila, who played a prominent role in Tunisian affairs.

Source: AFP