Zine el Abidine Ben Ali

A member of the struggle for Tunisian independence, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (born 1936) held many posts in the new government, rising to the position of prime minister in 1987. On November 7, 1987, he removed the aging and infirm President Habib Bourguiba from office, assuming the position of president.

On November 7, 1987, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, prime minister of Tunisia, announced on state television that he had assumed the duties of president. He had removed the aged, ill Habib Bourguiba from the presidency, citing mental infirmity as the main reason for his action. Bourguiba had been the chief architect of Tunisian independence from France in 1956 and had led the moderate Arab state as its president since that time. However, the Tunisian ship of state seemed to flounder as Bourguiba aged and lost control of the governmental and political mechanisms which made Tunisia a respected Arab nation. There appeared to be no real successor to Bourguiba, and the party which had guided Tunisia's destiny since independence had atrophied. Tunisia was being swept along with North African and Middle Eastern events. Into this void stepped Zine Ben Ali.

Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was born on September 3, 1936, in the village of Hamman-Sousse in the Sahel, only a few kilometers from the city of Sousse, near the eastern coast. Coming from a modest but respected family, Zine Ben Ali had the opportunity to attend school in Sousse, where he engaged in anti-French, pro-independence activity. Basically, he acted as a runner between local Neo-Destour (Destour was a liberal, constitutional political party) activists in Sousse and members of guerrilla bands operating nearby. When his Neo-Destour activities came to the attention of the French colonial administration, Zine Ben Ali was expelled from school and denied admittance to any French-administered school in the colony. After independence in 1956, he was rewarded for his support of the now victorious Neo-Destour Party by being selected for advanced education. There was never any question about Zine Ben Ali's intelligence or his great interest in military matters. Ironically, Zine Ben Ali was selected to go to France, the former colonizer, to study at the difficult, respected Inter Arms School at Saint-Cyr.

After attending Saint-Cyr, Zine Ben Ali was chosen to attend the well-known French artillery school at Ch Élonssur-Marne, and then attended various military courses in the United States. Known as an electronic engineer, he began his rise within the structure of the Tunisian government. Zine Ben Ali organized and administered the Tunisian Military Security Department from 1964 until 1974.

This was an important step in his rise to prominence in that it served to make Zine Ben Ali aware of the many internal problems faced by Tunisia as part of the North African and Arab Islamic world. He also gained great insights into the workings of Tunisian politics at the local level, and he became acquainted with those party officials, civil servants, and army officers who would be important in November 1987.

In 1977 Zine Ben Ali was appointed as the director general of national security, a post which he held for three years. It was during this three-year tenure that he became aware of the deteriorating conditions within the Tunisian government and of the outside forces which were threatening Tunisian internal security. There was increasing interest in the charismatic, troublesome Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddaffi (Gaddafi), whose anti-Western, anti-Israeli posturing attracted the attention of many Tunisian youth. There was a rising tide of feeling in support of the Palestinian cause as many Palestinians migrated to Tunisia. Zine Ben Ali tended to interpret his own support for the Palestinian homeland in the light of his anti-colonialist activities prior to Tunisian independence. He became very much aware of the strength of Islamic revivalism in Tunisia, which, in reality, was little different from other Arab states. As the national security chief for Tunisia, Zine Ben Ali was able to see that there were many problems pressing in on a state which appeared to have less and less direction from the top.

From 1980 to 1984 Zine served in an important post as Tunisian ambassador to Poland, and in 1984 he was recalled to Tunis to assume the post of head of national security. One year later, Zine Ben Ali became the minister of national security, and in 1986 he took over the vitally important portfolio of the Interior Ministry. Between 1986 and November of 1987, Zine consolidated his political power, and in October 1987 he became prime minister as well as the secretary general of the PSD, the Destourian Socialist Party. As prime minister he replaced Muhammad Mzali, the man who had been designated to replace the now failing Bourguiba. Mzali had come to the prime ministership with high hopes, but found that external pressures and internal economic, political, and religious discord kept Tunisia from developing viable programs. Bourguiba's health was at a point where he could no longer make rational decisions on a continual basis, and on November 7, 1987, Zine Ben Ali simply removed the old man, placing him under house arrest. Mzali and a few supporters fled to France, but there were few violent reactions to the change of government.

A severe drought in 1988, followed by a locust invasion, resulted in major crop damage and widespread food shortages. Zine took steps to deal with the crisis and ensured domestic order without resorting to massive police or army intervention or repression. In 1989 the French Center for Political and Society Studies gave to Zine Ben Ali the "Man of the Year" award for his work in promoting human rights in Tunisia. The following year, the U.S. State Department 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 Zine Ben Ali was trying to revitalize a nation that had been in serious trouble.

From 1990 to 1992 President Zine emphasized Tunisia's stand against extremism and terrorism. In what he described as measures "beyond simple considerations of security", he used swift and effective police actions to deal a defeating blow to militiant Islamic groups, sending their leaders into exile. In 1994 Zine was re-elected president in an unopposed election.

For his long time support of youth sports and promotion of olympic values, Zine was presented the Olympic Merit Award in 1996 by the Association of National Olympic Committees. During the same year he welcomed the visiting Pope John Paul II to Tunisia and also received the "Health for All" Gold Medal from the World Health Organization. During a speech on the 9th anniversary of his accession to the presidency, Zine announced the creation of a political academy thay would help increase popular participation in national domestic issues. In a speech to dedicate the academy, President Zine said; "Accomplishing the tasks ahead, ensuring the success of the comprehensive upgrading of the national economy, and meeting the challenges imposed by competition are all goals that can only be achieved if the political forces assume their mobilizing role."

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Further Reading on Zine el Abidine Ben Ali

There have been a few articles which bear upon him, including L.B. Ware, "Ben Ali's Constitutional Coup in Tunisia," and Dirk Vandewalle," From the New State to the New Era: Toward a Second Republic in Tunisia," both in The Middle East Journal (Fall 1988), and "Ben Ali Tackles Reforms in Post-Bourguiba Tunisia," Africa Report (January-February 1988). Information on Zine and Tunisia can be found in the Encyclopaedia Arabica.