Tunisian Ex-President Dies in Exile


Former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. (Photo from AP)

Thomas Lindstrom, The Carroll News

The former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali died in exile on Thursday, according to Tunisian state media. Ben Ali came to power in 1987, through a violent coup. Initially labeling himself a reformer, he pledged to bring democracy to Tunisia. But as the Financial Times reports, the promised reforms never materialized.

Ben Ali returned to the authoritarianism of his predecessors, solidifying his control over the country. Until, in early 2011, protests rocked Tunisia. Citizens from all walks of life took to the streets in mass demonstrations against the autocratic president. According to The New York Times, the people of Tunisia had finally had enough of his, “disregard for the plight of fellow citizens.” Protests grew in both size and intensity, until, on January 14, 2011, Ben Ali was forced to flee the country he once ruled. He sought refuge in Saudi Arabia, where he would remain until his death.

Soon after, it became clear that Ben Ali’s fate would hardly be an isolated event. Across the region, in what is now called the Arab Spring, protests spread through Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen among others. Rulers were toppled in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain and civil wars rage on in Syria and Yemen to this day.

The future of many countries thrown into turmoil by the Arab Spring remains uncertain. But for Tunisia, a narrative of hope has taken root. According to the BBC, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has unified secular and religious parties to stabilize the former French Colony. The young Tunisian democracy still struggles with many of the issues commonplace of the region, namely a stagnant economy and terrorist attacks. But today, Tunisia is undeniably freer than just a decade ago, says  Freedom House, a leading American research group on freedom in the world. It categorized Tunisia as “free” for the first time in 2015 and has maintained that evaluation every year since.

Perhaps most importantly, the BBC reports that, only days before Ben Ali’s death, Tunisia held its second-ever free elections. The election would have been impossible without the courage of the Tunisian people and the overthrow of  Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.