Ex-Tunisia president Ben Ali dies in exile

The former president ruled Tunisia from 1987 until 2011. (Reuters pic)

TUNIS: Former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the first leader to be toppled by the Arab Spring revolts, died Thursday in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia’s foreign ministry told AFP.

“We had confirmation of his death 30 minutes ago,” the ministry said, without giving further details.

The exiled 83-year-old’s lawyer, Mounir Ben Salha, confirmed the news, citing family members and Ben Ali’s doctor.

Ben Ali, who ruled his North African country from 1987 until 2011, was viewed by some as a bulwark against Islamist extremism, but faced criticism for muzzling the opposition and his reluctance to embrace democracy.

Eventually, growing frustration over unemployment and high prices snapped.

In late 2010, the self-immolation of a young trader sparked protests that rocked the country and sparked a deadly clampdown.

Ben Ali fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia on Jan 14, 2011.

His rapid departure sparked a string of similar uprisings across the region, toppling Egyptian and Libyan strongmen Hosni Mubarak and Moamer Kadhafi.

The turmoil triggered what was to become Syria’s devastating eight-year war.

In mid-2012, Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia to life in jail for his role in the deaths of protesters during the uprising that ousted him.

Little information has emerged on his life in exile.

Photos posted on Instagram in 2013 showed the former strongman smiling in striped pyjamas.

Ben Ali is survived by six children; three daughters by a first marriage and two daughters and a son by Leila Trabelsi.