The ouster of Mr. Ben Ali led to 2011’s Arab Spring.
The ouster of Mr. Ben Ali led to 2011’s Arab Spring.MICHEL CLEMENT/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian despot whose ouster in 2011 after a public uprising exposed long-simmering public rage against corruption, economic tumult, and dictatorial rule and sparked the Arab Spring, a revolt that ricocheted across North Africa and the Middle East, died Thursday in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. He was 83.

His lawyer, Mounir Ben Salha, confirmed his death to the Associated Press. Mr. Ben Ali was being treated for prostate cancer.

Mr. Ben Ali and his family fled from the capital city of Tunis on Jan. 14, 2011, to Saudi Arabia, after weeks of protests over high unemployment, rising food prices, corruption, and political repression.


Security forces wielding machine guns and clubs were unable to crush thousands of nonviolent demonstrators who flooded the capital’s broad avenues. Mr. Ben Ali’s lack of support from the Tunisian army, which declined to fire on the citizenry, was a crucial factor in his plummet from power.

His downfall, after more than 23 years as president, was widely credited as a transformative moment in the region and sent a wave of revolutionary fervor coursing through the streets of Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Libya, and Jordan. Unable to stop anti-government protests, embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi were forced from office.

Mr. Ben Ali’s government was ranked among the most brutal in the region, according to Amnesty International and other experts.

Mr. Ben Ali, a burly, dark-haired man with a stern bearing, was Tunisia’s second leader since independence from France in 1956.

He held the rank of general but never held an operational command that would have earned him allegiance from the quasi-independent military, said Noureddine Jebnoun, a Tunisian-born scholar at Georgetown University. As a founder of Tunisia’s military security agency, he made it his chief business to spy on countrymen.


The West initially greeted Mr. Ben Ali as a savior when, six weeks into his job as prime minister, he led a bloodless coup that toppled President Habib Bourguiba in 1987.

Tunisia, a tiny Mediterranean country squeezed between oil-rich neighbors Algeria and Libya, remained a favorite winter destination for wealthy Europeans and aligned itself with the West in the fight against Islamist terrorism. Yet the veneer of a republic — on what was in reality an authoritarian state with a secular gloss and a rare degree of freedom for women — continued to be stripped away under Mr. Ben Ali.