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Zine el Abidine ben Ali, Tunisian ruler whose fall led to the Arab Spring, dies at 83

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Former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, an autocrat who led his small North African country for 23 years before being overthrown by bloody protests that caused rebellion in the Arab world, died Thursday. He was 83.

Ben Ali, who had lived in Saudi Arabia in 2011 since fleeing Tunisia, died in Jeddah, said lawyer Mounir Ben Salha. The former president received prostate cancer treatment and was hospitalized last week.

His body needs to be transferred to Mecca, pending the family's decision on funeral arrangements, Ben Salha said.

The deposition of Ben Ali on January 14, 2011, in the midst of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, inspired what became known as the Arab Spring, a movement that saw many autocratic leaders out of power.

Ben Ali was widely abhorred and repeatedly convicted of corruption in Tunisia after going into self-imposed exile. But some loyal supporters asked for his return, because economic and security problems plagued the country's new democracy.

As president, Ben Ali's image was glued to billboards and buildings throughout the country for decades, his face strangely timeless despite the passage of time, her hair is still jet black. It seemed that only death would end his grip on power.

But when Tunisia revolt flooded in late 2010 and early 2011, fueled by anger over corruption, oppression and unemployment, protesters set fire to the president's photo, a once unthinkable act. His image eventually peeled buildings and billboards nationwide as old wallpaper.

Ben Ali promoted his land of 11 million as a beach paradise for European tourists and a beacon of stability in volatile North Africa. It seemed as if he had offered his people a consideration: there was a lack of civil rights and little or no freedom of expression, but a better quality of life than in nearby countries such as Algeria and Morocco.

The Tunisian revolution changed that and produced an abundance of political movements and the only democracy that emerged from the Arab Spring movement in the region.

The United States and other Western powers had an ambivalent relationship with Ben Ali. WikiLeaks cables from the US embassy in Tunis describe widespread allegations of corruption among the president's family, describe Tunisia as a "police state," and said Ben Ali had lost contact with his people.

But Ben Ali tried to gain the favor of the West through a continuous approach to extremists who, according to human rights organizations, was far too brutal and broad and, as potential terrorists, aimed at anyone with a strict interpretation of Islam.

Ben Ali, born on September 3, 1936, near Sousse on the Mediterranean, embarked on a career as a professional army officer. He was responsible for the internal security of Tunisia during a 1985 confrontation with neighboring Libya and a crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists.

He briefly became Prime Minister in 1987 before he turned his attention to the presidency.

In a bloodless coup Ben Ali seized the power of the then president-for-life Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern-day Tunisia who set the Muslim country on a pro-Western course after the independence of France in 1956. Ben Ali removed Bourguiba from office for & # 39; incompetence & # 39 ;, saying that he had become too old, senile, and sick to rule.

Ben Ali then promised that his leadership "would open the horizon for a truly democratic and evolved political life." But after a short period of reform in the beginning, the political evolution of Tunisia stopped.

Most opposition parties were illegal. Opponents were imprisoned or fled to exile. Amnesty International said authorities have infiltrated human rights groups and harassed dissidents. Reporters without borders called Ben Ali a & # 39; press predator & # 39; Who controlled the media.

Ben Ali consistently won elections with large margins. In 2009 he was re-elected to a fifth five-year term with 89% of the votes. He had warned political opponents that they would receive legal retribution if they questioned the legitimacy of the vote.

Under the supervision of Ben Ali, Tunisia was relatively untouched by the kind of Islamic extremist violence that destroyed neighboring Algeria, except for an attack in 2002 on a synagogue on the Tunisian holiday island of Djerba, killing 21 people, mostly German tourists. Researchers linked the attack to Al Qaida.

After the 2011 revolution, Islamic fundamentalism rose in some circles and battled security forces against extremists associated with the Islamic State group.

Ben Ali is survived by his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, and their three children, as well as three children from his first marriage.

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