Tunisia’s ousted autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali has been hospitalized for “a health crisis” in Saudi Arabia, where he has lived in exile since the revolution of 2011, his lawyer Mounir Ben Salha said by phone.
On Sunday, Tunisia will hold a free presidential election as it continues the path of democratization begun after mass protests drove Ben Ali from power in 2011, triggering the “Arab Spring” uprisings.
It is the first time that Ben Ali’s lawyer or family have gone public with news about the 83-year-old’s health. He has made no public statements since leaving for Saudi Arabia.
Sunday’s election has been brought forward after the death in July of the late President Beji Caid Essebsi, a former foreign minister under Ben Ali who then helped Tunisia steer through its transition to democracy after the revolution.
In 2011, a Tunisian court sentenced Ben Ali in absentia to 35 years in prison on charges ranging from corruption to torture, and in 2012 a military court sentenced him to another 20 years for inciting “murder and looting”.
Ben Ali brooked no dissent or challenges to his authority during his 23-year rule, but was eventually forced from power when Tunisians rose up in outrage following the self-immolation of a vegetable seller whose cart had been confiscated by police.
He flew to Saudi Arabia in 2011 after weeks of mass demonstrations, seeking refuge in a state that prized stability in a region, and which later worked to counter uprisings in Bahrain and Egypt.