Tunisia's Ben Ali fades into obscurity in Saudi exile

Then-Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (R) and his wife Leila, pictured on March 20, 2006, fled Tunisia in January 2011 to the Red Sea city of Jeddah with their children Mohamed and Halima (AFP Photo/) (Pool/AFP/File)

Tunis (AFP) - Tunisia's ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled for decades in pomp and luxury but the longtime strongman has cut a reclusive figure since his exile to Saudi Arabia five years ago.

After months of protests against his 23-year rule, Ben Ali fled Tunisia in January 2011 to the Red Sea city of Jeddah with his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, and his children, Mohamed and Halima.

The career soldier had been in power since November 1987.

After a promising start, Ben Ali consolidated his rule by muzzling the opposition and retaining control of the media and armed forces. His eventual downfall shocked observers and triggered revolts that toppled strongmen across the Arab world.

During his exile Ben Ali, 79, has kept almost entirely out of the media glare, a far cry from the man once famed for his lavish lifestyle and elaborate entertaining.

The revolt that toppled him was triggered in December 2010 by the self-immolation of a young man in the destitute centre of the country.

The snowballing uprising first focused on joblessness but took on a political dimension, fuelled by anger after a crackdown that left scores dead.

Ben Ali made several attempts to defuse the crisis, including the creation of 300,000 new jobs, the sacking of his interior minister, the release of detained demonstrators and a pledge to not stand for re-election in 2014.

But the mood was unforgiving and he eventually stepped down on January 14, 2011, before fleeing the country.

- Photographed in pyjamas -

Although Ben Ali releases periodic updates via his Lebanese lawyer, his movements and daily activities in exile remain a mystery.

"President Ben Ali doesn't want to publicise details" about his life in Jeddah, lawyer Akram Azoury told AFP.

In 2011 Azoury published a text containing the ex-leader's version of his ouster in which he claimed to have been the target of an assassination plot by a senior general.

According to the text, Ben Ali was forced to flee Tunisia with his family in fear of his life. He also denied ordering security forces to fire on protestors, something for which he received a life sentence in absentia in 2012.

His absence from public life has prompted hearsay over his health, including periodic -- and ultimately premature -- rumours of his death.

When Ben Ali has appeared in public the results have been less than statesmanlike; in 2013 an Instagram account drew interest and derision after it appeared to post photos of the deposed leader, including one of him smiling in striped pyjamas.

In 2012, his wife released a supposedly tell-all account of life married to Tunisia's last autocratic leader. "My Truth" rejected accusations of corruption and authoritarianism that dogged Ben Ali's rule.

The former first couple were both sentenced to 35 years in jail for graft shortly after leaving power.

Following the release of Trabelsi's account, they were pictured together in public -- Ben Ali still sporting his characteristic dyed, jet black hair -- apparently dispelling gossip that the two had divorced.

And Trabelsi later gave an interview to a French daily insisting her husband was not gravely ill in a coma.