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Ben Ali: First leader toppled in Arab Spring

By Dave Gilbert, CNN
January 4, 2012 -- Updated 1613 GMT (0013 HKT)
Former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, pictured here in 2009, is being tried in absentia.
Former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, pictured here in 2009, is being tried in absentia.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ben Ali is facing a tribunal in absentia for his alleged role in the killing of protesters
  • In a statement released by his lawyer last June he said he was a victim of "injustice"
  • Ben Ali trained as a soldier and became head of the defense ministry's intelligence section
  • Middle-East and Africa analyst Dr Claire Spencer believes that Ben Ali became a victim of his own political blindness

London (CNN) -- Zine el Abidine Ben Ali will be remembered as the first leader to be toppled in what became known as the Arab Spring. After nearly 24 years in power, he became the former president of Tunisia.

Just over a year ago a young fruit seller in the city of Sidi Bouzid took the desperate step of setting himself on fire to protest the oppressive conditions inside his country. Despite a hospital visit by the then president, coupled with vows to cut prices of basic foods, end censorship and ensure police did not use live ammunition on protesters, Ben Ali failed to quell growing unrest.

Mohamed Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries and his death triggered uprisings across Tunisia that spread through the Arab world, leading to regime change in Egypt and Libya.

Nearly 250 people died during the Tunisian violence that led to Ben Ali's ouster.

The 75-year-old fled with his wife Leila to Saudi Arabia, and attempts to return him for trial have so far proved fruitless. Other family members were reported to be in Canada.

Ben Ali is facing a military tribunal in absentia, along with dozens of former senior officials, for his alleged role in the killing of protesters in January 2011. The former president and his wife already have been tried in absentia and sentenced to 35 years in prison for corruption.

Although he has not appeared in court to defend himself, Ben Ali insists he is merely a "scapegoat," unfairly portrayed and discredited by political opponents seeking to make a break with their country's past.

In a statement released by his lawyer last June he said he was a victim of "injustice" and that he had always worked for what he thought was "the good of the Tunisian people, improving living standards and progressing on the path to modernity."

But the Tunisian people chose a different path after more than two decades under single-party rule.

The French and U.S.-educated Ben Ali trained as a soldier and later became head of the defense ministry's intelligence section -- a connection that analysts believe helped him maintain a grip on power during his presidency.

After serving as ambassador to Poland and ashort-lived appointment as prime minister, he became president in a 1987 bloodless coup, replacing Habib Bourguiba, who was declared medically unfit.

Ben Ali was returned to office in five elections -- in 1989, 1994, 1999, 2004 and 2009 -- often with claims of more than 90% voter support.

However, his years in power were marked by allegations of corruption and repression.

Shortly after Ben Ali's overthrow, Tunisian Ben Salah told CNN: "You didn't want to be overheard saying something against Ben Ali. Fear left with Ben Ali, May he and that fear never come back."

Dr Claire Spencer, who heads the Middle East and North Africa Program at London-based think-tank Chatham House, said the former president used his intelligence background to clamp down on the freedom of speech.

"It was more of a police state," she said. "There was a great atmosphere of distrust.

"Liberalization of the economy started as a good idea but it deviated from benefiting the rest of the population. His inner circle was top slicing any company that was making a profit."

Such corruption and high unemployment are two factors that are thought to have pushed Mohamed Bouazizi to self-immolation.

Dr Spencer believes that in the end, Ben Ali became a victim of his own political blindness.

"He looked like someone who believed his own myth and to be out of touch with what was happening in Tunisia."

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