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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" wasdeclared "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.

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