Former Tunisian president Ben Ali dies at 83

In this file photo taken on May 9, 2010, former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (front) waves to wellwishers after voting for the municipal elections next to his wife Leila (C) and his son-in-law the Tunisian businessman Sakhr Materi (R). Tunisia's all-powerful leader for two decades died Thursday aged 83, Tunisia's Foreign Ministry said. — AFP

TUNIS — Tunisia's all-powerful leader for over two decades, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced from power and into exile by a landmark popular uprising in early 2011 sparking revolts across the Arab world, died Thursday aged 83, Tunisia's Foreign Ministry said.

A career soldier, Ben Ali took power on Nov. 7, 1987 when he toppled Habib Bourguiba, the ailing father of Tunisian independence who was by then reported to be senile.

"I needed to re-establish the rule of law," Ben Ali told a French television channel in 1988. "The president was ill and his inner circle was harmful."

Tunisians, including Islamists, hailed his bloodless, non-violent takeover.

He went on to make Tunisia a moderate voice in the Arab world while Western governments viewed him as an effective bulwark against extremism despite criticism of his slow move toward democracy.

He began his rule encouragingly, scrapping the title of "president for life" created by Bourguiba and limiting the number of presidential terms to three.

He launched a "solidarity" policy, creating a special fund for the underprivileged and a social security system, while pursuing the promotion of education and women's rights.

But he consolidated his rule by muzzling the opposition, keeping strong control of the media and armed forces and eventually extending the number of terms he was allowed to serve under the constitution.

Ben Ali was born into a modest family in the east-central town of Hammam-Sousse on Sept. 3, 1936 when Tunisia was still a French protectorate.

He studied at military academies in both France and the United States and was appointed minister for national security in 1985, moving up to the Interior Ministry the following year and the post of prime minister in 1987.

Ben Ali promised a move towards democracy when he became president, organizing the country's first multi-candidate presidential election in 1999 — and winning it with an official 99.44 percent of the vote.

In May 2002 he held a referendum to change the constitution so he could serve a fourth term. A second such change then allowed for an unlimited number of mandates.

The revolution that toppled him was triggered in December 2010 by the self-immolation of a young man in the poverty stricken center of the country.

The snowballing uprising first focused on joblessness but took on a political dimension, fueled by anger after a crackdown that left scores dead.

Ben Ali made several attempts at conciliation including the creation of 300,000 new jobs, the sacking of his interior minister, the release of detained demonstrators and a pledge to not stand for re-election in 2014.

But the mood was unforgiving and he eventually fled into exile in January 2011 with his wife Leila Trabelsi. Ben Ali is survived by six children; three daughters by a first marriage and two daughters and a son by Trabelsi. — AFP