Tunisia Ex-President Ben Ali Buried In Medina

Former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali 1987 poses for an official picture in front of the Tunisian flag.  Handout / AFP


Tunisia’s former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was buried in the Muslim holy city of Medina on Saturday, witnesses said, after he died in exile in Saudi Arabia.

Ben Ali, who died Thursday in the city of Jeddah, was laid to rest at Al-Baqi cemetery next to the Prophet Mohammed’s mosque and a place of great reverence for Muslims.

Some of his family were to receive condolences on Sunday in an upmarket suburb of Tunis, according to a small notice published in Tunisia’s La Presse newspaper.

Ben Ali, the first leader to be toppled by the Arab Spring revolts, died aged 83.

He ruled his North African country from 1987 until 2011 and was viewed by some as a bulwark against Islamist extremism, but 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 centre of the country, set fire to himself in protest at humiliation by police.

That sparked protests which rocked Tunisia and triggered a deadly clampdown.

But the protesters won: on January 14, 2011 Ben Ali fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia where he stayed until his death.

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

The ex-leader’s wife, Leila Trabesli, who has led a comfortable and discreet life in exile with daughters Nesrine and Halima — along with son Mohamed — has little incentive to return home.

She faces heavy sentences for embezzlement, alongside possession of weapons, drugs and archaeological artefacts.

Ben Ali himself was sentenced several times to life in prison, including for the bloody suppression of protests in the last weeks of his autocratic rule that killed more than 300 people.

He never faced justice.


Tunisia Signs New Constitution

Tunisia adopted a new constitution on Monday, January 27, a big stride towards democracy in the country that began the Arab Spring revolutions and has largely avoided the chaos and violence now plaguing the neighbours it inspired.

After years under autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s charter has been praised as one of the most progressive in the Arab world, designating Islam as the state religion but protecting freedom of belief and sexual equality.

Parliament erupted in celebrations after the official signing of the constitution. Lawmakers approved it on Sunday evening, ending months of deadlock that had threatened to undo Tunisia’s transition.

“This is an exceptional day for Tunisia, where we celebrate the victory over dictatorship. The government and the opposition have won, Tunisia has won,” President Moncef Marzouki told the assembly after signing.

On the streets of the capital Tunis, reaction to the new constitution was mixed, but mostly positive.

“I am very happy. I feel relaxed and delighted for my country and my people and all Tunisians“, said one man.

“(The constitution) represents me; however the country is not going in the right direction. No matter if they change the constitution or not. It does not mean anything,” added a woman.

One man said politicians had been able to prevent the type of turmoil that plagued other countries in the region.

“The National Constituent Assembly was a fertile seed, it prevented us from many other bad possibilities, that could have happened, like what’s happening in Egypt, in Libya, Syria and Yemen,” he said.

The small North African country’s steady progress contrasts sharply with turmoil in Libya and Egypt, whose people followed Tunisia in ousting their veteran leaders in 2011.

Tunisia’s stock market rose 1.7 percent on Monday in a sign of investor confidence in the country’s stability, with the constitution in place and the formation of a new caretaker cabinet that will govern until elections.

After months of crisis, Tunisia’s transition got back on track when ruling Islamist party, Ennahda agreed to compromise late last year and step down to make way for a non-political cabinet of experts, led by former minister, Mehdi Jomaa.

Hours before Sunday’s January 26 approval of the constitution, new Prime Minister, Jomaa named technocrats with international experience to key posts such as Finance Minister and Foreign Minister.

No election date has been set, but Ennahda and opposition party Nidaa Tounes, headed by a former Ben Ali official, are expected to battle for the presidency.

In the National Assembly and on the street, political divisions about the role of Islam were forgotten in the celebrations over a constitution that United Nations Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon commended as a “milestone”.