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Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

One of the standard jokes about President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (usually delivered only half in jest) is that he had three goals for his presidency: to stay in power; to stay in power; and to stay in power. Ban Ali fled the country 14 January 2011 after a month of protests and rioting sparked by widespread unemployment and high food prices, dubbed the Jasmine Revolution. His departure ended more than two decades of authoritarian rule.

The unrest began several weeks earlier, touched off by the death of a man in southern Tunisia who set himself on fire to protest his inability to sell his produce. It was fanned by the Internet and by Tunisians angry about economic hardship and perceived corruption among top Tunisian politicians. Dozens of people have died in the unrest, although government officials and human rights groups offer vastly different tallies.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was born on September 3, 1936 in Hammam-Sousse, to a moderate-income family which brought him up to respect tradition, and imbued him with a sense of dignity, patriotism and respect for others. From his family upbringing, he developed a propensity for simplicity, persevrance and rigor, as well as a sense of moderation and tolerance.

While still a student in the Sousse secondary school, Ben Ali heeded the call of patriotic duty. Outraged by colonial oppression, he resolutely joined the national movement, acting as liaison between the regional structures of the Neo-Destour Party and the armed struggle. As a result, he was imprisoned and dismissed from all educational institutions in Tunisia. Still, he did not give up. He resumed his studies with energy and determination to move into higher education after completing secondary school.

Recognizing Ben Ali's outstanding qualities and qualifications, the Party sent him to France to pursue his higher training as part of a group that was to form the nucleus of the future national army. He first graduated from the Special Inter-service School in Saint-Cyr (France), then from equally prestigious schools: the Artillery School in Chlons-sur-Marne (France), and the Senior Intelligence School (Maryland, USA) and the School of Anti-Aircraft Field Artillery (Texas, USA). He also obtained a degree in electronic engineering.

In the late 1970s the director of national security, Colonel Ben Ali, also held the position of director of the Suret Nationale. The situation proved controversial for several reasons. Some Tunisians were concerned that holding both jobs made the incumbent too powerful, and the fact that Ben Ali was a military officer with long tenure as chief of military security concerned those who were interested in limiting military influence in the society. Ben Ali was also considered to be a proteg of Farhat, the former interior and national defense minister who fell from Bourguiba's favor in 1979. In 1980 after the Gafsa incident, Ben Ali was sent to Poland as ambassador and the director of national security in the Ministry of Interior remained vacant. His responsibilities were taken over by Abdelhamid Skhiri, who was named director of the Suret, and by Ahmed Bennour who was given the title of minister delegate attached to the prime minister for national security but who was not as closely involved in security operations as Ben Ali had been. The overall effect was to increase the direct influence of then-Minister of Interior Driss Guiga.

After the civil disturbances of January 1984, the leadership of the Ministry of Interior and the internal security forces was completely revamped. To run the security forces, Prime Minister Mzali brought back Ben Ali, reappointing him to his old jobs and director of the Sret and director of national security within the Ministry of Interior. Reportedly, Mzali also wanted to appoint Ben Ali for his replacement as minister of interior. Bourguiba balked at this suggestion, but in October 1984 he consented to Ben Ali's being named minister delegate attached to the prime minister for national security. Because no one was appointed to replace him at the Directorate of National Security, Ben Ali was able to combine operational control of the internal security forces with subcabinet rank. Ben Ali, who had received training in the United States, was considered to be a tough and politically well-connected leader.

Unrest grew rapidly in the mid-1980s. On October 2, 1987, Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba suddenly replaced the incumbent prime minister with Minister of Interior Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, a 51-year-old former army general. Ben Ali argued that Bourguiba was medically unfit to continue as president, while denouncing Bourguiba's de facto presidency for life. Ben All ousted Bourguiba through constitutional means on November 7, 1987. The constitutional provisions which Ben Ali used to remove Bourguiba made the Prime Minister responsible for determining the president's incapacity based on from seven doctors' certifications that the president was no longer competent to carry out the functions of his office.

At the dawn of November 7th, 1987, Tunisians learned that a new President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, acceded to the highest executive office. In an official declaration broadcast on national radio, the new President announced the advent of a new era for Tunisia, calling on his fellow citizens to join him in establishing a just, balanced and democratic society moving along the path of progress and modernity. The whole country welcomed the Change with relief. The new President brought to the nation a comprehensive societal project, ushering in a new era of diligent action and hard work for building a bright future for Tunisia.

Ben Ali quickly began to introduce democratic reforms into the authoritarian political system bequeathed to him by Bourguiba. He changed the const;tution to limit the President's term in office; he abolished certain legal mechanisms used by Bourguiba to prosecute political offenders; he reformed the electoral law and the press code; he recognized other political parties and strengthened the nascent multi-party system; he established the Constitutional Council and reinvigorated the Economic and Social Council to provide independent input into legislation; he undertook a wide-ranging administrative decentralization program; and he extended the privatization program begununder Bcurguiba. Ben Ali also freed thousands of political prisoners; relaxed repression of the opposition and press censorship; and dismissed many Bourguibaloyalists from top positions in the state and party apparatus. Moreover, in Septemtber 1988 he brought together representatives from all of the country's major politicaltendencies to sign a national pact aimed at forging naticnal unity, providing basic political freedoms and iaying the groundwork for new parliamentary elections.

Following the euphoria of Ben Ali's first year in office, the pace of transition toward a more pluralistic regime slowed considerably. During his 24 years of rule, President Ben Ali won the stake of democratic transition within institutional legality and national harmony. The foundations of a true democracy are set up in a progressive, secure and harmonious way, far from any upheavals. Elections are systematically held in their due time. Opposition parties are represented for the first time in parliament. Two pluralist presidential elections were held in October 1999 and October 2004.

When President Ben Ali came to power in 1987, he promised greater democratic openness and respect for human rights, signing a "national pact" with opposition parties, including the unauthorized Islamic An-Nahdha party. He oversaw constitutional and legal changes, including abolishing the concept of president for life, the establishment of presidential term limits, and provision for greater opposition party participation in political life. But the ruling party, renamed the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), continued to dominate the political scene. The RCD won all seats in the Chamber of Deputies in 1989, and won all of the directly elected seats in the 1994, 1999, and 2004 elections. However, constitutional amendments provided for the distribution of additional seats to the opposition parties by 1999 and 2004. Six opposition parties shared 53 of the 214 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

Ben Ali ran for re-election unopposed in 1989 and 1994. In the multiparty era, he won 99.44% of the vote in 1999 and 94.49% of the vote in 2004. In both elections he faced weak opponents. A May 2002 referendum approved constitutional changes proposed by Ben Ali that allowed him to run for a fifth term in 2009. Ben Ali won re-election in October 2009 with 89% of the vote (and 89% participation). The referendum also created a second parliamentary chamber, the Chamber of Advisors, and provided for other changes. On July 28, 2008 President Ben Ali approved a constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18.

A referendum in 2002 created a second chamber, the Chamber of Advisors (126 seats; 6-year terms; 85 elected by municipal officials and professional associations; 41 members are presidential appointees). Elections for the Chamber of Advisors were held in July 2005. Half of these seats were up for re-election in August 2008.

Before elections were held in October 2009, the government rejected 15 of the 26 legislative candidate slates the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) proposed and 12 of the 26 proposed by the Ettajdid Movement. In some cases, the government rejected candidate slates without explanation. By contrast, five "opposition" parties viewed as friendly to the government had no more than five of their 26 candidate slates rejected. Election results: percentage of vote by party -- RCD 75%; seats by party -- RCD 161, MDS 16, PUP 12, UDU 9, At-Tajdid 2, PSL 8, PVP 6. The number of opposition seats increased from 37 to 53.

Elections were held October 25, 2009. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was reelected for a fifth term; candidates from opposition: Mohamed Bouchiha (PUP), Ahmed Brahim (At-Tajdid), Ahmed Innoubli (UDU), and Mounir Beji (PSL); percentage of vote--Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 89.62% (officially). The government reported electoral participation was at 89 percent of the 4.9 million eligible voters. Anecdotal observation suggested this may have been inflated.

The Chamber of Deputies or Majlis al-Nuwaab had 214 seats elected for 5-year terms; 161 seats are elected by popular vote for party lists on a winner-take-all basis). An additional 53 seats are distributed to opposition parties on a proportional basis as provided for in 1999 constitutional amendments. In March 2008 the Chamber of Deputies amended the electoral code. This changed the legal voting age from 20 to 18 and allowed for an increase in the total number of Deputies from 189 to 214. The number of seats reserved for the seven officially recognized opposition parties increased from 20 percent to 25 percent.

While there are thousands of official, established non-governmental organizations, civil society remains weak and divided. The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), the first human rights organization in Africa and the Arab world, operated under restrictions and suffers from state intrusion. Some independent organizations, such as the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development, and the Bar Association also are active. The government has denied legal status to a handful of other human rights advocacy groups who, nonetheless, attempt to organize and publicize information on the human rights situation in the country. Political pressure groups and leaders included:

  • Authorized--Tunisian Human Rights League or LTDH (Mokhtar Trifi); Tunisian Association of Democratic Women or ATFD (Sana Ben Achour); Tunisian Bar Association (Abderrazak Kilani); National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists or SNJT (Jamal Kermaoui); General Union of Tunisian Students (Ezzedine Zaatour).
  • Unauthorized--An-Nahdha (Renaissance) the Islamic fundamentalist party (Rached El Ghanouchi, in exile); National Council for Liberties in Tunisia or CNLT (Sihem Ben Sedrine); Freedom and Equity (Mohamed Nouri); Movement of 18 October (Nejib Chebbi, Hamma Hammami, et. al) Congress for the Republic or CPR (Moncef Marzouki); Tunisian Communist Labor Party or POCT (Hamma Hammami); Green Party or Green Tunisia (Abdelkader Zitouni); International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners or AISPP (Samir Dilou); Association Against Torture in Tunisia or ALTT (Radia Nasraoui).

The Tunisian Journalist Association's (AJT) membership was suspended by the International Federation of Journalists from 2004-2007 for failing to defend freedom of the press. Seeking to gain some national autonomy and bargaining power with the government, in January 2008 Tunisian journalists created a union, the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT). Neji B'ghouri, who billed himself as an independent, was elected its first president but was replaced in 2009 by Jamal Kermaoui following contested elections. In July 2010, a new Syndicate of Tunisian Writers was created to protect writers against perceived marginalization and exploitation and to collectively lobby the government for more benefits for its members. Questions remain as to how effective it will be in changing the political atmosphere.

Trade unions have played a key role in Tunisia's history since the struggle for independence, when the 1952 assassination of labor leader Farhat Hached was a catalyst for the final push against French domination. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), the country's sole labor confederation, has generally focused on bread-and-butter issues, but at some critical moments in Tunisia's history has played a decisive role in the nation's political life. Despite a drop in union membership from 400,000 to about 250,000 as the structure of the Tunisian economy changed, the UGTT continues to hold a prominent place in Tunisia's political and social life, and negotiates with government and the umbrella employer group on wages and benefits.

Despite the Government of Tunisia's stated commitment to making progress toward a democratic system, citizens do not enjoy political freedom. The government imposes restrictions on freedom of association and speech and does not allow a free press. Many critics have called for clearer, effective distinctions between executive, legislative, and judicial powers. Foreign media, including foreign-based satellite television channels, have criticized the Tunisian Government for the lack of press freedom. Tunisia ranked number 154 out of 173 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders list of World Press Freedom rankings, down from 143 in the previous year. As reflected in the State Department's annual human rights report, there are frequent reports of torture and abuse of prisoners, especially political prisoners.

As of 2010 there were eight legal opposition parties, the Social Democratic Movement (MDS), the Popular Unity Party (PUP), the Union of Democratic Unionists (UDU), At-Tajdid (also called the Renewal Movement), the Liberal Social Party (PSL), and the Green Party for Progress (PVP), plus the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP) and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties (FDTL), the only two not represented in the Chamber of Deputies. The parties are generally weak and divided and face considerable restrictions on their ability to organize. The Islamist opposition party, An-Nahdha, was allowed to operate openly in the late 1980s and early 1990s despite a ban on religiously based parties. The government outlawed An-Nahdha as a terrorist organization in 1991 and arrested its leaders and thousands of party members and sympathizers, accusing them of plotting to overthrow the president. The party is no longer openly active in Tunisia, and its leaders operate from exile in London. Several activists have been denied permission to establish other opposition political parties.

Although the petty corruption rankled, it was the excesses of President Ben Ali's family that inspired outrage among Tunisians. With Tunisians facing rising inflation and high unemployment, the conspicuous displays of wealth and persistent rumors of corruption have added fuel to the fire. The protests in the mining region of Gafsa provided a potent reminder of the discontent that remained largely beneath the surface. This government has based its legitimacy on its ability to deliver economic growth, but a growing number of Tunisians believed those as the top were keeping the benefits for themselves.

Ben Ali had seven siblings, of which his late brother Moncef was a known drug trafficker, sentenced in absentia to 10 years prison in the French courts. Ben Ali has three children with his first wife Naima Kefi: Ghaouna, Dorsaf and Cyrine. They are married respectively to Slim Zarrouk, Slim Chiboub, and Marouane Mabrouk -- all significant economic powers.

Construction on an enormous and garish mansion had been underway next to the US Ambassador's residence since 2007. The home was that of Sakhr Materi, President Ben Ali's son-in-law and owner of Zitouna Radio. This prime real estate was reportedly expropriated from its owner by the Government of Tunisia for use by the water authority, then later granted to Materi for private use.

In 2006, Imed and Moaz Trabelsi, Ben Ali's nephews, are reported to have stolen the yacht of a well-connected French businessman, Bruno Roger, Chairman of Lazard Paris. The theft, widely reported in the French press, came to light when the yacht, freshly painted to cover distinguishing characteristics, appeared in the Sidi Bou Said harbor. Roger's prominence in the French establishment created a potential irritant in bilateral relations and according to reports, the yacht was swiftly returned. The stolen yacht affair resurfaced in early 2008 due to an Interpol warrant for the two Trabelsis. In May 2008, the brothers were brought before Tunisian courts, in a likely effort to satisfy international justice.

Marouane Mabrouk, another of Ben Ali's sons-in-law, purchased a 17 percent share of the former Banque du Sud (now Attijari Bank) shares immediately prior to the bank's privatization. This 17 percent share was critical to acquiring controlling interest in the bank since the privatization represented only a 35 percent share in the bank. Mabrouk shopped his shares to foreign banks with a significant premium, with the tender winner, Spanish-Moroccan Santander-Attijariwafa ultimately paying an off the books premium to Mabrouk.

Average Tunisians spent more time commenting on Ben Ali's health and omnipotent rule than the possibility that he may step down. Ben Ali, who had been rumored to have prostate cancer since early 2003, maintained an active schedule and appeared healthy; but Tunisians often discussed whether he appears pale, thin or otherwise physically ill. While some people may state their hope that U.S. and European pressure could force Ben Ali to become more democratic or relinquish the presidency, they were at a loss when asked who would succeed him. Ben Ali's policy of regularly changing ministers and other senior officials has ensured that no individual had widespread support, respect, or even substantial recognition among Tunisians.

The former president Ben Ali fled the country 14 January 2011 after a month of protests and rioting sparked by widespread unemployment and high food prices. His departure ended more than two decades of authoritarian rule. When Ban Ali departed the country, interim authority fell to Fouad Mebazaa, the President of the National Assembly. Mebazaa was a long-time ruling RCD party stalwart (a member of the RCD Politburo, a former Minister, and a "survivor" from the Bourguiba era), whose principal task as interim President would be to organize elections and, from an RCD perspective, maintain the party's hold on power.



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