Ben Ali, the 'strongman' whose weakness almost destroyed Tunisia

Ben Ali, the 'strongman' whose weakness almost destroyed Tunisia
Tunisian dictator and career kleptocrat, Ben Ali fled his country with an economy and society in tatters. The New Arab remembers his legacy.
5 min read
08 January, 2017
Many stories of violent torture have come out since the ex-president fled in 2011 [AFP]
Former President  Zine El Abidine Ben Ali departed Tunisia from al-Aouina military airbase in the afternoon of January 14, 2011. The Tunisian president had originally intended to escort his family onto the plane for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia before returning to the presidential palace but changed his mind at the last minute.

At the time of his flight, 70,000 protesters were waiting outside the gates of his presidential palace in Carthage. National security had broken down across the country and massive riots were overpowering the country's police - finally exposing the endemic weakness at the heart of the feared regime.

It is widely accepted that Ben Ali - nicknamed Ben a Vie [Ben for Life] - was a paranoid and autocratic dictator, who ruled over Tunisia for 22 years with an iron grip using torture and brutal violence to hold onto power.

And like most paranoid dictators, it was to be these same factors that led to his downfall - deep-set insecurities and a pathological fear of any perceived threat.

The "Barraket Essahel Affair"

Fearing a rebellion from his perceived enemies - the nation's Islamists and military leaders - Ben a Vie allegedly orchestrated a completely fabricated coup attempt involving 244 soldiers on 22 May, 1991.

This coup, nicknamed the "Barraket Essahel Affair" - after the town the soldiers were arrested in - led to the summary arrest and torture of the soldiers involved, despite a complete lack of evidence.

A 2015 investigation into the alleged coup attempt showed that these soldiers were considered to be some of the brightest and best in the country's military. One colonel hypothesised in a 2015 interview that they were only picked out because Ben Ali himself had personally considered their excellence to be a threat to his continued rule.

Confessions were extracted by the country's top torturers and the soldiers were stripped of their passports, along with any hope of a job or future. Many have lived with severe psychological trauma, requiring their families to take care of them.

This trauma was also to be shared by many members of the banned Islamist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ennahda movement.

A miscarriage of justice

Police officers beat Mahrzah Ben Abed so hard over such a prolonged period of time in 1991 that she suffered a miscarriage in her cell. It took her captors four days before they took her to hospital, where she was chained to her bed and threatened with more violence if she talked.

In December 2016, Ben Abed told the nation her story at a national evidence gathering session on the historical crimes committed under the Ben Ali regime - the Truth and Dignity Commission.

The commission has now compiled more than 62,000 charges of torture and oppression, in a report which will serve as a lasting testimony to the true legacy of Ben Ali.

In November 2016, Ben Ali made a statement through his lawyer, admitting that his regime had "committed errors, abuses and violations" and was not "exempt from offence".

Beyond these "errors" lies a system of violence that can be traced directly to the president at the top of the pile.

In 2015, a number of Tunisian army generals claimed that Ben Ali had personally stripped the military of its strength due to fears top-brass officers might rise up against him.

This - in their view - was almost certainly because he himself had come to power through a bloodless coup in 1987.

Ben Ali oversaw a brutal police state [Getty]

On 6 November 1987, Prime Minister Ben Ali ordered seven doctors to sign a medical note confirming President Bourguiba's inability to rule, aged 84. According to subsequent testimony, none of these doctors had seen Bourguiba that day.

Like Shakespeare's flawed tyrant, Macbeth - who came to power through vicarious means - Ben Ali is said to have seen threats everywhere.

Following the "Barraket Essahel Affair", Ben Ali acted against these threats by gutting the country's military of any ability to organise another coup. When the armed forces chief of staff, General el-Kateb, retired in 1991, Ben Ali refused to appoint a replacement. He effectively appointed himself as the new commander of Tunisia's military.

In its place, Ben Ali created a secretive internal security agency that became synonymous with serious human rights violations. In 1992, the country's interior ministry's budget - which deals with internal security - jumped to 165 percent to that of the military budget, according to numbers compiled by the academic, Derek Lutterbeck.

"Tunisia under its long-time ruler Ben Ali was considered a police state par excellence," wrote Lutterbeck.

Tunisia's stabilisation

Speaking with Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi over the phone on 14 January, 2011 - from his new home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - the so-called Ben a Vie passed over his title as president. The country's second Jasmine Revolution was complete.

Following decades of repressive paranoia, Tunisia was not initially well placed to transition directly into a democratic system of governance however.

A new government, led by the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Ennahda Party - which had been operating in the shadows for decades - had to learn the task of good governance almost overnight.

This was to be no easy task, given the state of the country as the Ben Ali regime had left it. The country's coffers were bare, as the president and his cronies had personally stripped the country of any wealth and a ramshackled economy.

As a result of these economic misfortunes - made worse by an ineffective security force - terrorism began to thrive in the North African nation.

Since Ben Ali fled Tunisia there have been four major terrorist attacks, killing 73 people and wounding 104 others.

This reached its peak with the 2015 Sousse attack, where many tourists - the country's primary source of revenue - lost their lives. As a result of this attack, UK tourists to Tunisia fell 98 percent year-on-year in 2016.


Ultimately, it was Ben Ali's paranoia which gutted the security apparatus, which in turn has hit the country's economy hard.

The president was a weak man masquerading as a strongman - causing death and misery to tens of thousands of people. The effects of his fragile masculinity will be felt for years to come.