Former Tunisian president dies at 83

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the first leader to be toppled in the so-called "Arab Spring", dies in Saudi Arabia where he had lived in exile.

Elad Benari,

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

Former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the first leader to be toppled in the so-called “Arab Spring”, died Thursday in Saudi Arabia at the age of 83, Tunisia's foreign ministry told AFP.

"We had confirmation of his death 30 minutes ago," the ministry said on Thursday afternoon without giving further details.

His lawyer, Mounir Ben Salha, confirmed the news, citing family members and Ben Ali's doctor.

Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for 23 years between 1987 and 2011, had been living in exile with his wife in Saudi Arabia since they fled the country during the 2011 revolution.

While he was viewed by some as a bulwark against Islamist extremism, he faced criticism for muzzling the opposition and his reluctance to embrace democracy.

Eventually, growing frustration over unemployment and high prices snapped. In late 2010, a young trader in Sidi Bouzid, in the impoverished center of the country, set fire to himself in protest at humiliation by police.

That sparked protests which rocked Tunisia and triggered a deadly clampdown before Ben Ali fled on January 14, 2011.

After leaving Tunisia, Ben Ali was sentenced twice to life in prison for presiding over the bloody crackdown on the uprising against him.

He was separately sentenced to decades in prison along with his wife for embezzlement, illegal possession of narcotics, housing fraud and abuse of power.

In 2013, Ben Ali was given a five-year jail term in absentia and fined 3.5 million euros for corruption.

In 2017, he and his wife were issued new 10-year prison sentences for corruption.

Little verified information had emerged on Ben Ali's life in exile.

Photos posted on Instagram in 2013 showed the former strongman smiling in striped pajamas. Rumors of his death had circulated several times in recent years before Thursday.

Following Ben Ali’s ouster, Tunisia held democratic elections for the first time, which were won by the Islamist Ennahda party, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Ennahda was forced to step down shortly after being elected.

Tunisia on Sunday held a presidential election, in which two outsiders -- law professor Kais Saied and detained media mogul Nabil Karoui -- made it through to a second round run-off.

The country's first post Arab Spring democratically elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, passed away in July at the age of 92, bringing the first round of the presidential polls forward by several months.