Ousted Tunisian President Ben Ali dies at age 83: Foreign ministry

Ben Ali's lawyer told Reuters he was unable to confirm the report that the ousted president had died. (File photo: Supplied)

Tunisia's foreign ministry confirmed on Thursday that former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali has died in Saudi Arabia.

A source knowledgeable of Ben Ali’s condition said that he died from lung cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 2004. The source added that Ben Ali was transferred to a hospital in Jeddah one month ago, where he remained until he died.

The source told Al Arabiya English that the former president was in a three-week coma, and that his condition got worse starting May.

Ben Ali fled Tunisia in January 2011 as his compatriots rose up against his oppressive rule in a revolution that inspired other Arab Spring uprisings abroad and led to a democratic transition at home.

On Sunday, Tunisians voted in an election that featured candidates from across the political spectrum, sending two political outsiders through to a second round vote unthinkable during Ben Ali's own era of power.

However, while Tunisians have enjoyed a much smoother march to democracy than citizens of the other Arab states that also rose up in 2011, many of them are economically worse off than they were under Ben Ali.

A former security chief, Ben Ali had run Tunisia for 23 years, taking power when, as prime minister in 1987, he declared president-for-life Habib Bourguiba medically unfit to rule.

In office, he sought to stifle any form of political dissent while opening up the economy, a policy that led to rapid growth but also fuelled grotesque inequality and accusations of brazen corruption, not least among his own relatives.

Ben Ali's rise began in the army after Bourguiba won Tunisia's independence from France in 1956. He was head of military security from 1964, and of national security from 1977.

After a three-year stint as ambassador to Poland, he was called back to his old security job in 1984 to quell riots over bread prices. Now a general, he was made interior minister in 1986 and prime minister in 1987.

His first decade as president involved a big economic restructuring - backed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank - and an annual growth rate slightly over 4 percent a year.

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