Tunisia's Ben Ali, whose ouster sparked the Arab Spring, dies

A 2009 photo shows Ben Ali waving to supporters after he took the oath of office at the national assembly in Tunis.
A 2009 photo shows Ben Ali waving to supporters after he took the oath of office at the national assembly in Tunis.PHOTO: REUTERS

TUNIS (BLOOMBERG) - Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the longtime Tunisian leader whose ouster in 2011 helped set off a wave of uprisings across the Arab world, has died. He was 83.

Ben Ali's death after an illness while in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia was confirmed in a phone interview by his son-in-law, Slim Chiboub.

Ben Ali came to power in a coup that removed President Habib Bourguiba and he served as the North African nation's president from 1987 to January 2011, when a fruit vendor set himself on fire to protest the seizure of his cart and triggered the Arab Spring.

Revolutions swept through Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, plunging the countries into political upheaval and creating the conditions for three wars that are yet to end.

In Egypt, the unrest toppled President Hosni Mubarak and opened the door for an Islamist successor who served only one year before a military-backed popular uprising saw him also booted from office.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.

A Tunisian court in 2012 sentenced him in absentia to life in prison for inciting violence that led to deaths.

A military court later handed out another life term for violently quashing protests.

He died just days after Tunisia staged a vibrant presidential election, in the latest sign of the democratic progress it alone among the nations that saw uprisings has achieved.

Successive Tunisian governments have failed, though, to deliver the economic growth needed to dent stubbornly high unemployment.

A low-profile law professor and a controversial TV personality took the top two slots in the vote in a resounding rejection of the status quo, and will compete in a second round ballot.

Along with political infighting, a series of militant attacks as well as frequent strikes organised by the country's powerful labour unions hobbled the economy.