Ben Ali: Tunisia
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the authoritarian former head of Tunisia was deposed in the revolt of 2010-11. The Tunisian revolution has arguably been the starting point of the wave of unrest still spreading across the Middle East.
Born near the city of Sousse in 1936, Ben Ali graduated from military academies in France and the Unites States before returning to Tunisia to begin his military career in 1964. He rose through the ranks to be appointed the country’s General Director of National Security in 1977. Around this time, Tunisia’s economic problems under its former president Habib Bourguiba began to worsen and there was growing discontentment among large sections of the population.
In 1986, doctors officially declared the eighty-four year old Bourguiba mentally unfit to govern. This paved the way for a bloodless, constitutional takeover by Ben Ali, who was named president in 1987. Heralded by his people as the man to turn the Tunisian economy around, he enacted a series of economic reforms targeted at curbing inflation, unemployment and the country’s massive debt.
Under Ben Ali, Tunisia began to exhibit steady economic growth, and his social reforms aimed at women won praise from the international community. Unemployment however remained a huge problem, with large sections of educated youth remaining without jobs. Around the early nineties, huge posters of Ben Ali began to adorn Tunisian cities, and he started curbing the freedom of the press to avoid criticism.
By the middle of the 2000s, it had become clear that the would-be reformer had turned autocrat, and was intent on keeping power at all costs. He twice amended the constitution to allow himself to continue as president and won elections uncontested three times.
In December 2010, after a young college graduate set himself on fire in Tunis’ city square after being barred from selling fruits and vegetables, widespread protests engulfed Tunisia. Desperate, Ben Ali promised long-overdue reforms but to no avail. By January 2011, it became clear that he had lost the support of his people, and fled to Saudi Arabia, ending twenty-three years of rule. He left Tunisia in the hands of an interim government.
At the time of writing, Ben Ali is reportedly in critical condition after suffering a stroke.
Hosni Mubarak: Egypt
Mubarak has been perhaps the most high profile victim of recent events in the Middle East. Unarguably, he sat at the head of the region’s nerve center, and his overthrow heralded new possibilities for one of the most complex areas in the world.
Mubarak’s reign was the longest by a leader since that of Muhammad Ali Pasha in the nineteenth century. Few could have predicted that the little-known vice-president of Anwar Sadat would go on to rule for three decades, especially considering his limited political clout. What Mubarak did possess, however, was a toughness that came from years in the Egyptian Air Force where he reached the rank of Air Chief Marshal.
Born near Cairo in 1928 to a family of modest means, Mubarak’s rise to prominence was relatively swift. Once appointed vice president, Mubarak was loyal to Sadat’s policies, including disengagement with Israel. When Sadat was assassinated in 1981, Mubarak replaced him as Egypt’s president.
His leadership was very much rooted in his ties to the military, and many commentators have argued that it is the support of the army that allowed him to keep power for three decades, despite popular discontentment.
As was the case in Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Mubarak’s economic policies have been the main cause of Egypt’s extremely high unemployment. In addition to his authoritarian curbing of the press and his economic mismanagement, rumors of the Mubarak family’s corruption have fuelled public anger. It is speculated that they possess upwards of $40 billion dollars in Swiss bank accounts, accumulated through corruption, secret military contracts, and other business activities. In 2010, the Swiss government announced that it had frozen Mubarak’s assets.
Inspired by the Tunisian overthrow of Ben Ali, Egyptians took the streets in mid-January. By early February, Mubarak’s control of Egypt appeared extremely tenuous. On February 10th, it was widely expected that he would announced his resignation. Instead, Omar Suleiman announced his ascension to the position of vice president. The announcement did come the next day, however, with Mubarak resigning the presidency and retiring to Sharm-Al-Sheikh.
Like Ben Ali, Mubarak is reportedly gravely ill and frequently in and out of a comatose state.
Muammar Gaddafi: Libya
Shrewd, brutal, and eccentric, Gaddafi has always courted headlines. From the colorful clothes that he claims identify him with a pan-African cause, to his gun-toting virgin female bodyguards, Gaddafi’s personal eccentricities could fill an entire page alone. His actions on the international stage have been no less baffling, with his rambling two-hour speech at the United Nations in 2009 serving as a prime example.
His strangeness prompts many in the West to ask how his people can take him seriously. The answer is simple: beneath the odd mannerisms and extravagant lifestyle is an extremely calculating political operator. Born in 1942 in the Libyan Desert to Berber tribesmen, Gaddafi grew up admiring General Nasser of Egypt. He participated in anti-Israel protests in the 1960s, after attending military academies in Britain and Greece. In a bloodless coup d’état in 1969, Gaddafi overthrew King Idris I who was in Turkey for medical treatment at the time. Idris would never return, fleeing to Saudi Arabia where he died in 1983.
Gaddafi, according to personal accounts, considers himself very much an intellectual. His political philosophy is outlined in his Mao Zedong-styled “Green Book,” which he made compulsory reading for all Libyans. In it, he advocates for Islamic law and an alternative to both Capitalism and Socialism that he personally devised.
His relations with the West, much like his rapport with his own people, have seen much change. In the beginning, he claimed to be a “new Che Guevara” and provided weapons and asylum to anyone who claimed to be fighting western imperialism. This got him in trouble repeatedly, with Libyan-sponsored acts of terrorism in Germany and Scotland inviting bombings and the breaking-off of diplomatic relations. At one point, Ronald Reagan famously referred to him as “the mad dog of the Middle East.” Eventually, Gaddafi eyed gains from a more benign relationship with the West, and Libya took responsibility for the acts of terror that it had supported.
In early 2011, years of political and social repression spilled over as the Libyan people began to protest violently. Predictably, Gaddafi’s response was more violence, and the massacre of his own people has led to widespread condemnation with the United Nations referring the case to the International Court of Justice.
In Libya, the fight rages on, but there is no doubt that history will judge him harshly, both for his years of repression and his maniacally violent push to stay in power.