BEN ALI, Zine El Abedine

Zine El Abedine Ben Ali was born on 3 September 1936 in Hammam-Sousse, a small town in the Tunisian Sahel.

Member of the Neo Dustour Party, he was sent to France as part of a group of young men who were expected to form the nucleus of the army after the independence. He graduated from the Inter-Arms School of Saint-Cyr, the Artillery School in Châlons-sur-Marne in France and the School of Anti-Aircraft Field Artillery in the United States.

In 1964, he was asked to set up the Military Security Department which he ran for 10 years. In 1974, he became Military Attaché in Morocco. He returned to Tunisia three years later to take up the Director-Generalship of the National Security.

From 1980 to 1984 he was Ambassador to Poland. In 1984 he was recalled to Tunisia as head of the National Security and was shortly after appointed Secretary of State in charge of National Security at a time when the Tunisian government was fighting the Islamic fundamentalist movement. One year later, he became Minister in charge of National Security, and a few months later, on 26 April 1986, Minister of Interior. In June 1986, he was named Secretary-General of the ruling Dustour Socialist Party (formerly Neo Dustour). On 2 October 1987, he became Prime Minister while still retaining the Interior portfolio.

On 7 November 1987, Ben Ali became President after Habib Bourguiba was declared incapable to rule because of failing health. He has been re-elected three times since then. Although two other candidates were for the first time authorized to run against him in the elections held on 24 October 1999, Ben Ali officially got 99.44% of the votes.

President Ben Ali has allowed multiparty competition for Parliament, but saw to it that the ruling party – the former Dustour which he renamed Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD) in 1988 – kept the majority of seats. He has always fiercely fought and tried to suppress the Tunisian Islamic fundamentalists.

In May 2002, in the first ever referendum organized since the Tunisian independence, the voters approved amendments to above half of its 78 articles. Amendments to articles 39 and 40 were of particular interest for Mr. Ben Ali as they canceled the limits on the number of presidential terms (previously 3) and extended the age limit for candidates to 75 (from 70), while another article grants now former presidents lifelong judicial immunity.

After the approbation of these changes (the official figure is 99,61% in favor), the amended constitution allows Mr. Ben Ali to seek re-election in 2004 and again in 2009.

Following the controversial referendum of 2002, Ben Ali was re-elected as President in 2004 taking nearly 95% of votes. President Ben Ali accepted to sit for re-election in 2009 following intense pressure from members of his own party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally. On the 25th of October 2009, Ben Ali was elected once again as president with 89% of votes until 2014.

Both elections highlighted a grave problem regarding freedom of the press in Tunisia. Many cases of imprisonment and arrests have resulted from the government’s strict policies and lack of democracy promotion. The most recent impediment for Tunisian freedom of the press came on the same day as Ben Ali’s last re-election with the blocking of “AlJazeera Net”. Although Tunisia remains one of the most modernist and moderate countries along the southern shore of the Mediterranean, its bureaucratic autocracy is still marked by corruption and repression.

This last election will surely be the last for a 73 year-old Tunisian President two years away from the upper-age limit. Although Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, and son-in-law, Mohamed Sakhr Matri, are actively involved in Tunisian politics, it seems unlikely that a direct dynastic succession, a reality in Egypt and Libya, will take place in Tunisia.