Christopher Alexander: The Last King of Tunisia ... The Strange Rise and Fall of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali

Roundup: Talking About History

[Christopher Alexander is Davidson College's McGee director of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program, an associate professor of political science, and author of Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb.]

As the end of his reign quickly approached this week, Tunisia's President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali attempted to conjure the spirit that buoyed his government in the months after he seized power more than 20 years ago.

In a televised address to the country on Jan. 13, Ben Ali -- speaking in colloquial Arabic and in unusually humble tones -- pledged not to run for reelection when his current term ends in 2014 and to usher in a gentler phase of governance in the meantime.

The offer was far too little, far too late, as the reaction in the streets of Tunis made immediately clear. But it wasn't just Ben Ali's tone that recalled an earlier era: In fact, Ben Ali's fall from power has had a remarkable similarity to his original rise.

In 1987, Tunisia teetered on the brink of a civil war between the tottering authoritarian government of President Habib Bourguiba and a popular Islamist movement. Ben Ali, who served as both interior minister and prime minister under Bourguiba, removed the president on the grounds that age and senility rendered him incompetent to govern...

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