Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (born September 3, 1936) was born in Hammam-Sousse. He is president of Tunisia since 1987, only the second since the independence from France in 1956.
As a young man and a member of a group representing the Neo-Destour party, he was sent to France for military training. He graduated from the Inter-Arms School of Saint-Cyr and the Artillary School in Châlons-sur-Marne, and then continued his military education in the United States.
Ben Ali was appointed to establish and manage the military security department in 1964, which he ran until 1974. He was promoted to director-general of the National Security in 1977 after serving as military attaché to Morocco. Ben Ali returned from four years as ambassador to Poland to become head of the National Security and then secretary of state. He assumed this post at a time of increasingly radical Islamic activity. For his success in dealing with this threat to the regime he was appointed interior minister, and retained this position when he was made Prime Minister under President Habib Bourguiba in October 1987.
Ben Ali deposed Habib Bourguiba and assumed the presidency on November 7, 1987 (a symbolic date for his regime) with some popular support. Seven doctors signed a paper declaring that Habib Bourguiba was unfit for office. He retained his predecessor’s non-aligned foreign policy stance but suffered due to his simultaneous criticism of both Iraq and the United States during the Gulf War in 1990-1991. Both Kuwait and the United States withdrew their investments from Tunisia as a result. In spite of this incident, the economy is in growth since the early 1990s and big public works (airports, highways or commercial centers) have been made. Sadly, the unemployment stays as the biggest economical problem.
Ben Ali continued his predecessor’s authoritarian approach and cult of personality. Although he announced political pluralism in 1992, his Democratic Constitutional Rally (formerly Neo-Destour party) continues to dominate the national politics. His regime continues not to allow the opposition's activities, notably the islamist Al Nahda party, and the freedom of press remains a masquerade. In 1999, although two unknown alternative candidates were permitted for the first time to stand in the presidential elections, Ben Ali was reelected with 99.6% of the vote. He has already announced his intention to stand for the 2004 elections.