Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (September 3, 1936 - September 19, 2019) was a Tunisian political figure who was the second President of Tunisia from 1987 to 2011. Ben Ali was appointed Prime Minister in October 1987, and he assumed the Presidency on 7 November 1987 in a bloodless coup d'état that ousted President Habib Bourguiba, who was declared incompetent. Ben Ali was subsequently reelected with enormous majorities, each time exceeding 90% of the vote; the final reelection was on 25 October 2009.
On 14 January 2011, following a month of protests against his rule, he was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia along with his wife Leïla Ben Ali and their three children. The interim Tunisian government asked for Interpol to issue an international arrest warrant, charging him for money laundering and drug trafficking. A Tunisian court sentenced Ben Ali and his wife in absentia to 35 years in prison on 20 June 2011 on charges of theft and unlawful possession of cash and jewelry . In June 2012, a Tunisian court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment for inciting violence and murder.
Large photographs of Ben Ali were widespread in Tunisia. This example was at the Office of Merchant Navy and Ports building. Tunisia held its first formally pluralistic legislative elections in 1994: opposition parties polled 2.25% and gained 19 of 163 seats in Parliament. Ben Ali, the only presidential candidate, was re-elected with 100% of the votes from a 95% turnout.
A constitutional referendum in 2002 established a two-chambered parliament, creating the Chamber of Advisers, and amended the upper age limit for a presidential candidate to 75 years old (previously 70).
Tunisia under Ben Ali had problems with human rights violations, such as freedom of the press, highlighted by the official treatment of the journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, who was harassed and imprisoned for his criticism of Ben Ali.
On 25 October 2009, Ben Ali was re-elected for a fifth term with 89% of the vote. The African Union sent a team of observers to cover the election. The delegation was led by Benjamin Bounkoulou, who described the election as "free and fair". However, a spokesperson from the US State Department indicated that Tunisia had not permitted monitoring of the election by international observers, but that the U.S. was still committed to working with the Ben Ali and the Tunisian government. There also were reports of mistreatment of an opposition candidate.
In December 2010 and January 2011, riots over unemployment escalated into a widespread popular protest movement against Ben Ali's government. On 13 January 2011, he announced he would not run for another term in 2014, and pledged steps to improve the economy and press freedom. The following day, however, thousands demonstrated in the center of Tunis, demanding Ben Ali's immediate resignation. On 14 January 2011, Ben Ali, his wife and children fled to Saudi Arabia, and a caretaker ruling committee headed by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi was announced.
As president, Ben Ali instituted economic reforms that increased Tunisia's growth rate and foreign investment. During his administration, Tunisia's per capita GDP more than tripled from $1,201 in 1986 to $3,786 in 2008.Although growth in 2002 slowed to a 15-year low of 1.9% due to drought and lackluster tourism, better conditions after 2003 helped push growth to about 5% of GDP. For about 20 years after 1987, the GDP annual growth averaged nearly 5%. A report published in July 2010 by the Boston Consulting Group (The African Challengers: Global Competitors Emerge from the Overlooked Continent) listed Tunisia as one of the African "Lions" and indicated the eight such countries account for 70% of the continent's gross domestic product. Steady increases in GDP growth continued through positive trade relations with the European Union, a revitalised tourism industry and sustained agricultural production. Privatization, increasing foreign investment, improvements in government efficiency and reduction of the trade deficit presented challenges for the future. The 2010/11 Global Competitiveness Report (Davos World Economic Forum) ranked Tunisia 1st in Africa and 32nd globally out of 139 countries but it dropped to 40th in 2011/12 as a result of political instability and was not ranked in 2012/13.
According to the Oxford Business Group, Tunisia’s economy was likely to grow from 2008 due to its diversified industries. Committed to fighting poverty at home, Ben Ali instituted reforms including the National Solidarity Fund which slashed the Tunisian poverty rate from 7.4% in 1990 to an estimated 3.8% in 2005. The National Solidarity Fund was part of a dual strategy to fight current and potential terrorism through economic assistance, development and the rule of law. The fund provided opportunities to those living in impoverished areas and are vulnerable to recruitment by terrorists. It was a critical element in the fight against terrorism.
However, Tunisia continued to suffer from a high unemployment, especially among youth. Left out of the recent prosperity were many rural and urban poor, including small businesses facing the world market. This and the blocking of free speech were the causes of the Tunisian revolution.
Ben Ali with US Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2004 Meeting between Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and George W. Bush, in 2004, in the White house, Washington, D.C.During Ben Ali's presidency, Tunisia pursued a moderate foreign policy promoting peaceful settlement of conflicts. Tunisia took a middle of the road approach contributing to peacemaking, especially in the Middle East and Africa. Tunisia hosted the first-ever Palestinian American dialogue. While contributing actively to the Middle East peace process, Tunisian diplomacy has supported the Palestinian cause. As host to the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1982–1993, Ben Ali's government tried to moderate the views of that organisation. Tunisia, since the early 1990s, called for a “concerted” international effort against terrorism. It was also a key US partner in the effort to fight global terrorism through the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative.
Ben Ali mostly retained his predecessor's pro-western foreign policy, though he improved ties with the Arab-Muslim world. He took several initiatives to promote solidarity, dialogue and cooperation among nations. Ben Ali initiated the creation of the United Nations World Solidarity Fund to eradicate poverty and promote social development based on the successful experience of the Tunisian National Solidarity Fund. Ben Ali also played a lead role in the UN’s proclaiming 2010 as the International Year of Youth.
Ben-Ali's government was deemed authoritarian and undemocratic by independent international human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Freedom House, and Protection International. They criticised Tunisian officials for not observing international standards of political rights and interfering with the work of local human rights organisations. In The Economist's 2010 Democracy Index, Tunisia was classified as an authoritarian regime, ranking 144th out of 167 countries studied. In 2008, in terms of freedom of the press, Tunisia was ranked 143 out of 173.
In response to the protests, Ben Ali declared a state of emergency, dissolved the government on 14 January 2011, and promised new legislative elections within six months. However, events moved quickly, and it appears the armed forces and key members of the legislature had lost confidence in Ben-Ali, and had decided to take steps of their own. With power slipping from his grasp, Ben Ali resigned the presidency at about 4:00 pm local time and delegated prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi to act as head of state during his "temporary" absence. With the army surrounding the Presidential Palace in Tunis, Ben Ali and close members of his family hastily left and headed to Laouina airport (annexed to the civil airport of Tunis Carthage). The military allowed Ben Ali's plane to take off, immediately after which the Tunisian airspace was closed. The presidential plane headed first to France. But after the plane was denied landing rights on French territory, it directly flew to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali and his family were accepted by King Abdullah to live there under the condition that he should keep out of politics. Ben Ali and his family are now living in exile in the Saudi city of Jeddah, the same city where former President Idi Amin Dada of Uganda lived in exile until his death in 2003 after being removed from power on 1979 at end of the Ugandan-Tanzanian War.
Other close associates and family members who attempted to leave the country via Tunis-Carthage International Airport were prevented from doing so by the army, which had seized the airport.
At about 6:00 pm local time, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi went on state television to say:"Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the (presidential) duties."
However, this arrangement was very short lived, because early the following day (Saturday 15 January 2011) the Constitutional Court of Tunisia determined that Ben Ali was not "temporarily unable" to exercise his duties and that the presidency was in fact vacant. The arrangements he had made with the Prime Minister before leaving the country were found to be unconstitutional under article 57 of the constitution. The country's constitutional court, the highest legal authority on constitutional matters, announced the transition on Saturday, saying that Fouad Mebazaa (the Speaker of Parliament) had been appointed interim president.
Mebazaa took the oath in his office in parliament, swearing to respect the constitution in the presence of his senate counterpart, Abdallal Kallel, and representatives of both houses. It was also announced that the speaker of parliament would occupy the post of president temporarily and that elections would be held within a period of between 45 and 60 days.
On 26 January 2011, the Tunisian government issued an international arrest warrant for Ben Ali, accusing him of taking money out of the nation illegally and illegally acquiring real estate and other assets abroad, Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi said. Videos show that the president stashed cash and jewellery in the president's palace. The gold and jewellery will be redistributed to the people by the government. The Swiss government announced that it was freezing millions of dollars held in bank accounts by his family. On 28 January 2011, Interpol issued an arrest warrant for Ben Ali and his six family members, including his wife Leila.
After Ben Ali fled Tunisia following the Tunisian revolution, he and his wife were tried in absentia for his suspected involvement in some of the country's largest businesses during his 23-year long reign. On 20 June 2011, Ben Ali and his wife were sentenced to 35 years in prison after being found guilty of theft and unlawful possession of cash and jewellery. The verdict also includes a penalty of 91 million Tunisian dinars (approximately €50 million) that Ben Ali has to pay. This verdict was dismissed as a "charade" by some Tunisians dissatisfied with the trial and as a "joke" by Ben Ali's lawyer. The sentences will take immediate effect although Ben Ali and his wife were residing in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government failed to respond to Tunisia's requests to extradite them.