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Ben Ali, Zein al-Abidin (1936–) - BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS, PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:, PERSONAL HISTORY, INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS, CONTEMPORARIES, THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE, LEGACY

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Zein al-Abidin Ben Ali (Zayn El Abidine Ben Ali, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali) has been president of Tunisia since 1987.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Zein al-Abidin Ben Ali (Zayn El Abidine Ben Ali, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali)

Birth: 1936, Hammam-Sousse, Tunisia

Family: First wife, Naima Kefi (divorced 1992); three daughters: Ghazwa, Dorsaf, and Cyrine; second wife: Leila Trabelsi; two daughters, Nessrine and Halima; one son, Mohamed Zine El Abidine

Nationality: Tunisian

Education: Military studies at InterArms School, École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr Academy, Coëtquidan, France; French army artillery school, Châlons-sur-Marne, France; U.S. army staff courses, Fort Bliss, Texas

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1964: Head of Tunisian military security
  • 1974: Military attaché to Morocco
  • 1977: Head of national security
  • 1980: Tunisian ambassador to Poland
  • 1984: State secretary for national security
  • 1985: Appointed to Tunisian cabinet
  • 1986: Minister of interior
  • 1987: Appointed prime minister in October; ousts president Habib Bourguiba in November, assumes the presidency
  • 1988: Signs national pact with opposition leaders
  • 1989: Receives Man of the Year Award from French Center for Political and Society Studies
  • 1991: Bans the Hizb En Nahda party
  • 1994: Elected president
  • 1996: Presented the Olympic Merit Award by the Association of National Olympics Committees; receives “Health for All” gold medal from the World Health Organization
  • 1999: Reelected president
  • 2004: Reelected president

PERSONAL HISTORY

Ben Ali was born on 3 September 1936 in Hammam-Sousse, Tunisia, to a Muslim Tunisian family of modest means. At that time Tunisia was a French protectorate. A member of the anti-French independence Neo-Destour movement since his teens, Ben Ali acted as a runner between local Neo-Destour activists in his town and anti-French guerrillas operating nearby. When his activities were exposed, Ben Ali was expelled from school and denied admittance to any French-administered school in Tunisia.

After Tunisian independence in 1956, Ben Ali was rewarded for his support of the now-victorious Neo-Destour Party by being chosen for advanced education. He was selected to go to France to study to become a military officer, and sent to the InterArms School at the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr Academy in Coëtquidan, France. He then attended artillery school at Châlons-sur-Marne and took classes at the U.S. Army base at Fort Bliss, Texas. Back in Tunisia, Ben Ali was the head of Tunisian military security from 1964 until 1974, when he became a military attaché in Morocco. Returning to Tunisia three years later, he was appointed the head of national security, and ambassador to Poland in 1980. In 1984 he was appointed state secretary for national security and a cabinet minister in 1985. He suppressed disturbances in 1978 and 1984; in 1986, when he became minister of the interior, he set out to eliminate the Mouvement de Tendance Islamique (MTI; Islamic Tendency Movement), a group that opposed President Habib Bourguiba’s secularist reforms.

Despite two periods of disfavor between 1974 and 1984, Bourguiba appointed Ben Ali prime minister in October 1987. He also served as secretary-general of the Parti Socialiste Destourien (PSD; Destour Socialist Party). Many considered Bourguiba, who had ruled Tunisia for thirty years since independence from France in 1956, unfit to govern. His health was at a point where he no longer could make rational decisions on a continuous basis. One month after Ben Ali became prime minister, he ousted Bourguiba in a peaceful coup on 7 November 1987 and assumed the presidency.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Initially Ben Ali claimed he would ease some of Bourguiba’s stern political measures concerning opposition movements, particularly the Mouvement des Démocrates Sociaux (MDS; Social Democrat Movement) and the MTI. His interest in a multiparty system led to the signing of a national pact with opposition leaders in 1988. Nevertheless, he maintained strong ties with the ruling party, the old PSD, renamed the Rassemblement Constitutionelle Démocratique (RCD; Constitutional Democratic Rally) in 1987. He pursued strong links with other North African states through the Arab Maghreb Union, founded in 1989. As head of the RCD, he was elected president in 1994 and reelected in 1999 and 2004 with more than 99 percent of the vote.

Ben Ali’s repression of Islamist and opposition leaders, as well as human rights activists, increased through the 1990s. In 1991 Ben Ali banned the Hizb En Nahda (Renaissance Party), an offshoot of the MTI that tried to legalize its party status, and severely restricted the actions of its leader, Rached Ghannouchi. On 12 July 1992 one of the harshest court cases in Tunisian history was launched against Hizb En Nahda’s members; 280 were accused of taking part in a plot and fifty were threatened with the death penalty. This case caught the attention of Western countries and international human rights groups, who exerted pressure to release the defendants. Thirty defendants were sentenced to life in prison. It was not just Islamists who found themselves in Ben Ali’s sights, either. In 1994 Moncef Marzouki, general of the League of Human Rights, was jailed for considering a run against Ben Ali, the only presidential candidate. When press agencies such as Le Monde and Libération showed concern, they were banned. More recently, in 2006 Ben Ali’s government began enforcing a 1981 ban on women wearing headscarves in public places such as schools and government offices.

CONTEMPORARIES

Rached Ghannouchi (1941–) was involved with the Society for the Preservation of the Qur’an in the 1970s. He was a founding member and head of the Mouvement de Tendance Islamique (MTI; Islamic Tendency Movement), which was renamed the Hizb En Nahda in 1989. Ghannouchi was an Islamist politician who decried Tunisia’s Westernized values, and argued instead for shari’a (Islamic law) to guide national life. The government imprisoned him from 1981 to 1984, and again in 1987. President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali pardoned him in May 1988, and he left the country into self-imposed exile in London in April 1989.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tunisia faced serious economic problems, such as chronic unemployment, a balance of payment deficit, and an unwieldy state subsidy and price control system. Despite drought conditions, Tunisia’s economy has improved, with gross domestic product up 6 percent in 2001, tourism up 3.5 percent in 2000, and direct foreign investment up 144 percent to US$768 million. Despite the privatization of thirty-five of forty-one firms, with an average 5 percent improvement in their turnover, unemployment remains high at 15.6 percent. In 1999 Ben Ali created a plan for eliminating poverty and providing adequate housing for the poor. For example, the National Solidarity Fund, popularly known as 2626, created housing projects.

THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE

Initially some around the world felt that Ben Ali was set to liberalize the political system in Tunisia. In 1989 the French Center for Political and Society Studies gave him the Man of the Year award for his work in promoting human rights in Tunisia. The following year, the U.S. Department of State asked Congress for authorization to increase funds for assistance to Tunisia for fiscal year 1990. The American perception, as expressed by official opinion, was that Ben Ali was trying to revitalize a nation that had been in serious economic trouble.

Despite Ben Ali’s promise to improve human rights and his introduction of a more liberal press law, Human Rights Watch continued to denounce the government’s human rights record. From 1990 to 1992, Ben Ali emphasized Tunisia’s stand against extremism and terrorism. In what he described as measures beyond simple considerations of security, he used swift police actions to deal a blow to militant Islamic groups, sending their leaders into exile. Tunisia had more than one thousand political prisoners, was listed as one of the ten countries in the world most hostile to a free press, and is among the State Department’s list of countries that use excessive stress and duress interrogation tactics. Ben Ali’s government defends its policies. After the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, foreign minister Habib Ben Yahia visited London, where he spoke on the alleged danger of Tunisian Islamists abroad and called for the extradition of Hizb En Nahda leadership.

Ben Ali has received various honors and awards. For his longtime support of youth sports and promotion of Olympic values, he was presented the Olympic Merit Award in 1996 by the Association of National Olympic Committees. During the same year he received the Health for All gold medal from the World Health Organization.

LEGACY

As the second president of independent Tunisia, Ben Ali will also be remembered as one who continued his successor’s moderate, pro-Western orientation, and who used an iron fist to crush the political Islamist movement in his country.

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