Tunisia's former President, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, died on Thursday following a long battle against cancer. Among the Tunisian people, the memory of the man who ruled the country for 23 years before being ousted in 2011, triggering the Arab Spring movement, is decidedly mixed.
Tunisians woke up on Thursday to the news that the country’s former President, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, has died. The former president, who died from cancer at the age of 83, ruled Tunisia for 23 years before being ousted in 2011 as a result of the mass street protests that would go on to be known as the Arab Spring. Spreading to numerous other countries in the region, the Arab Spring shaped the directions of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, among others. Among Tunisians, his death elicited mixed reactions.
In the streets, many Tunisians acknowledged that his rule held both good and bad parts. In general, his memory appears to elicit less bitter reactions compared to his contemporaries in Syria or Libya. Even those opposing him seem to agree that the former president deserves to be buried in his homeland, as opposed to Saudi Arabia where he died and is expected to be buried.
These mixed responses are unsurprising, given that despite his record for the brutal suppression of dissidents and the curbing of political freedoms, Ben Ali’s quick abdication of power also spared the country from the wars that fell upon Syria and Libya or the political chaos experienced in Egypt, Iraq and Yemen. Similarly, owing to the suppression of criticisms against the regime, many Tunisians have come to associate his reign with a sense of stability even if such perception was only due to the regime’s failures becoming apparent after his fall and during the successive governments.
Indeed, Tunisia’s path post-Ben Ali has been all but smooth. The country experienced numerous terrorist attacks and many Tunisians joined up with ISIS and other extremist groups. Even outside the risk of terrorism, political tensions and deadlock have marred the country’s post-2011 landscape. The economic improvements to the lives of the Tunisian people also been lacklustre, leaving many people disillusioned.
Despite these problems, the progress made by Tunisia since the rule of Ben Ali cannot be ignored. The country has made progress towards coming to terms with its past while taking steps towards implementing better governance, one of the issues that triggered the protest movement in 2011. Freed from the constraints on expression, many Tunisian artists have also found the space to contribute to the country’s post-2011 cultural landscape.
The country has performed well politically as well, standing out as an example of success among the many countries that experienced the Arab Spring. The country held its first municipal elections in 2018 and has held presidential elections following the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi. Although tensions rose at times, the country handled these elections well, succeeding in increasing the representation of women.
With the death of Ben Ali ends a major chapter in Tunisia’s history. Despite mixed opinions about the legacy of the former president, many Tunisians seem content to let him have a place in Tunisia’s history so long as the country can look towards a better future.