Behind The Scenes Of Ben Ali’s Final Hours

Did deposed Tunisian President Ben Ali realize his departure was for good? Would the “Jasmine Revolution” have triumphed if the army had not sided with the people? An exclusive account of a dictator’s demise.

Flowers on army tank in Tunis (magharebia)

Friday, January 14. A false sense of calm pervades the chic villas of Carthage and their palm-filled gardens. His face pressed against the window of a black 4x4, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is wearing a turtleneck sweater with a matching brown jacket, according to several eyewitnesses. Did he realize that this would be his last image of Tunisia? After 23 years in power, did he realize that this hasty flight was forever? Moreover, did he have a choice?

The mood the previous night had been, in his view, one of "reconciliation". In his speech the previous day, the third in ten days, the Tunisian autocrat had promised not to run in 2014. He had also pledged to launch a vast program of reforms and ordered an end to firing live ammunition into the crowd. But it was too late.

Although "celebrated" in the streets by dozens of staged supporters, in spite of the strict curfew, his proposals had not convinced the demonstrators. Since the morning, they had gathered by the thousands in the city center around a single slogan: "Ben Ali, out!" -- students, unionists, workers, teachers, the middle class in suits. Their anger knew no bounds. The charade had come to an end.

A three-hour slot

"Zaba" – as he was nicknamed – did not see it coming. Or rather, did not want to. "He thought he was invincible," says a Western diplomat. Yet, his country was in a mess. All it took was the December 17, 2010 suicide of an unemployed university student named Mohammed Bouazizi to strike a deadly match that would make the situation explode. Surprised by the popular discontent that flared up, Ben Ali did not give in. He tried a televised speech, then a second one. In a bid to calm the situation, he promised to create more jobs. But at the same time, he allowed the police – made of about 120,000 men, to attack the demonstrators with enthusiasm. "Repression and lies were at the base of the system. Ben Ali thought by continuing to suppress and lie, order would be restored," says Khadija Cherif, president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (TANF).

Obsessed with its own security, and increasingly isolated, Ben Ali made a serious miscalculation: right from the onset of the riots, he underestimated the role of the army. The approximately 43,000 men, mostly conscripts, were never part of the regime's scheming. Under-equipped, they were kept busy on border control and supervising development projects such as road and bridge construction and expanding residential drinking water access. "In contrast to Algeria, the Tunisian military are anchored in the people and their everyday lives," says a former Western military attaché.

Thus, when the police began to shoot into unruly crowds, the soldiers refused to participate in the bloodshed. Taken aback, they organized security cordons, in an attempt to create a barrier between the police and protesters. This did not stop the Ministry of the Interior forces from continuing their slaughter. The weekend of January 8 and 9, the police acted with more force than ever in the central western locations of Thala, Kasserine and Regueb. Dozens of deaths were recorded.

"For many Tunisians, this was the point of no return. Relayed by Facebook, the images of carnage provoked emotion throughout population," says Adrianus Koetsenruijter, head of the European Commission Delegation in Tunisia . The army had seen too much. In Thala, witnesses report hearing on January 8 for the first time, soldiers publicly ordering the police to stop the killing. "The army is a key element of this revolution. If it had endorsed the crackdown, the revolt could have been stopped in 24 hours," says the former Western military attaché.

If there is one person who can boast of having precipitated the fall of Ben Ali, it is General Rashid Ammar, Chief of Staff of the Tunisian army. Discrete in the extreme, this man of integrity does not speak to the media. According to a source close to the army, he not only forbade his men from firing on the demonstrators, but he also issued a strong warning to the police on Thursday, January 13 saying: "If you do not stop shooting, I will order the army to retaliate." When this fell on deaf ears, Ammar was forced to shift up a gear. According to several sources, Rashid Ammar contacted Ben Ali directly on Friday morning. Sickened by the repression and unconvinced by Ben Ali's latest promises, Ammar made it clear that the president had to leave as soon as possible to avoid a bloodbath. "It's over!" he told him.

Ammar is also reported to have put extra pressure on the leader by offering him a narrow timeslot of only three hours to leave by plane. Beyond these three hours, he threatened to close the airspace. "The decision from Ben Ali was then made between midday and 2pm," says the former Western military attaché. It was in these circumstances that Ben Ali, caught on his heels, returned to his residence in Carthage where the presence of the presidential guard had been strengthened. According to several witnesses, an urgent evacuation plan awaited him that day when he got out of his 4×4. "Three helicopters and three boats were made available to the president," says one witness, suggesting two assumptions: that either Ben Ali would immediately flee aboard a helicopter, or make a quick detour to Tunis Airport, where his private jet was waiting.

Did the Americans play an active role in forcing Ben Ali to flee? According to a Tunisian diplomat, interviewed by Le Figaro, the U.S. Embassy in Tunis is believed to have called General Ammar and given him the green light to topple the regime. This conjecture - denied by several Western diplomats based in Tunis - is difficult to verify. But there is no doubt that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statements in favor of the democratization of Tunisia were heard by the demonstrators.

U.S. diplomatic telegrams containing information about the Ben Ali dynasty, released by WikiLeaks at the end of 2010, were also read avidly by a large chunk of the Tunisian population. In Paris, a high-ranking French official, who knows General Rashid Ammar well, also notes the key role of the Tunisian politician and diplomat Karmel Morjane in Ben Ali's departure. Contacted by Le Figaro, Morjane denies any involvement.

Change of course in flight

What seems clear, however, according to political scientist and Tunisia expert, Jean-François Bayart is that "Ben Ali's fall was more like a palace revolution than a simple revolt." For him, "Tunis in January 2011 looks more like Bucharest in December 1989 than a truly revolutionary situation."

In the confusion surrounding Ben Ali's departure, there was also the question of the president's immediate future. According to our colleagues at Figaro Magazine, Ben Ali's plane was initially expected at Le Bourget airport near Paris . But over the Italian island of Sardinia, the aircraft was ordered not to continue northwards. Clinton reportedly asked France not to welcome the ousted president. Prior to this request, the U.S. Secretary of State is reported to have called Prince Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, and asked him to host Ben Ali. The Tunisian dictator's plane then headed in the direction of Jeddah.

That Friday evening at the Elysee Palace, French President Nicolas Sarkozy summoned a top diplomat, former ambassador to the United States Jean-David Levitte, along with several other key advisers and cabinet members, including the Foreign and Defense Ministers. A response to Ben Ali's departure was needed.

"We did not know if he was in Malta or Libya, or in the air. And we had not received a request to welcome him," reveals one participant at the meeting. "It was during this meeting that the President indicated France would not be taking in Ben Ali. He also requested the freezing of assets belonging to Ben Ali and some members of his family," recalls the witness. "We didn't receive a call from the United States," he adds. "They pulled off a very nice communication operation in this matter."

Upset at feeling unwanted, Ben Ali believed his departure would be short-lived. This is perhaps why Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi's declared a "temporary vacating of power" under Article 56 of the Constitution, on January 14. Rumors abound that the Tunisian dictator, prior to his flight, tried to encourage his militias to sow chaos on the streets in the hope the Tunisians would beg him to return. The next day, however, the "vacating of power" was declared "definitive."

Since then, daily demonstrations trample on the last symbols of Ben Ali's power, with protesters calling for the dissolution of the RCD party of the former regime. "Zaba" will probably never see the palms of Carthage again. But this did not stop the president from placing a call a few days ago to the prime minister. The message, according to opposition politician and current Minister for Regional Development Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, was that Ben Ali wanted to come home.

Read the original article in French

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️


"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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