Ben Ali’s phone calls illustrate the lesson of history: dictatorships end ignominiously

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 14, 2022

Tabouna, the Tunisian bread. The protests, which sparked the so-called ‘Arab spring’, were about poverty, joblessness and despair. Photo: Rashmee Roshan Lall  

With impeccable timing, the BBC has released secretly recorded phone calls between Tunisia’s former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and trusted advisors, 11 years after people power forced him to flee the country.

Ben Ali, who died in exile in Saudi Arabia in September 2019, left Tunisia on January 14, 2011.

The tidal wave of fury that forced him to leave would spread across the Middle East and North Africa in what western news outlets would call “the Arab Spring”. However, the region itself has always been sceptical about the strength, coherence and constancy of the protests.

Even so, it does feel slightly surreal to consider the last few phone calls before a feared ruler was forced out of power. The phone calls, which can be heard in the BBC’s new documentary ‘The Dictator’s Last Calls’ are interesting in that they follow a predictable pattern.

Half were reassuring; the others were realistic.

When Ben Ali spoke to a confidant believed to be media tycoon Tarak Ben Ammar, the dictator received praise from his caller. It was just hours before he got on a plane to leave Tunisia, forced out by his people’s fury.

Then, when Ben Ali leaves Tunisia and speaks to his defence minister, his army chief and another businessman confidant, he receives a confusing view of the situation on the ground.

The defence minister is mostly factual; the army chief is wavering and the businessman is grim.

The calls are interesting in terms of the wisdom of crowds in a fast-changing situation. No one knows what’s happening or what to expect. The instinct is to soothe or to stave off.

That’s the somewhat slight lesson from the Tunisian dictator’s last phone calls with his countrymen as he became yesterday’s man.

The larger lesson, of course, is that history shows dictatorships usually end  in ignominious fashion.