TUNIS – Ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali suffered a stroke and was “in a coma” in a Saudi hospital, a family friend said Thursday, as more details of corruption under his rule came to light.
The 74-year-old former leader slipped into a coma “two days ago” while being treated in a Jeddah hospital after a stroke, according to the friend.
“He had a stroke, and his condition is serious,” he said.
Earlier, a spokesman for the interim government that replaced Ben Ali’s regime would neither confirm nor deny the reports that he was in hospital. Tunisia’s Le Quotidien newspaper had reported Thursday that he had a stroke.
Government spokesman Taieb Baccouch said Mohamed Ghannouchi’s transitional government which includes members of the opposition would discuss Ben Ali’s condition during a cabinet meeting on Friday.
Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 after a popular uprising ended his 23-year grip on power.
Dissident and journalist Touafik Ben Brik, who was jailed under the regime for articles criticising Ben Ali, told AFP he felt as if he was “almost in mourning” for the dictator, such was his hold on the country.
“I can never forget. He is still in us, he is part of our past and he will live for a long time in us.”
Yadh Ben Achour, a Tunisian lawyer and head of the newly established national commission for political reform, said Ben Ali’s hospitalisation in exile “is proof there is justice on earth”.
On the streets of Tunis, there was little sympathy for former president as the news broke.
“If he dies, we’re losing a dictator and I say ‘Good riddance’,” said Adel, a 50-year-old teacher. “We’re turning a page, we’ve other things to do in this country.”
Amin, a 25-year-old student, had an equally harsh assessment. “If his death is confirmed I can only say that God’s punishment has been quick.”
Since Ben Ali fled his homeland, details have gradually come to light of the extent of corruption under his rule,
He and his wife Leila Trabelsi, along with their inner circle, are suspected of having pocketed much of the country’s wealth over the years and of taking personal stakes in much of the economy.
Central bank chief Mustapha Kamel Nabli said this week that Tunisian banks funded businesses linked to the families of the couple to the tune of 1.3 billion euros (1.8 billion dollars).
Nabli said this was the equivalent of five percent of all financing by the Tunisian banking sector, and nearly 30 percent of the cash was provided with no guarantees of repayment.
The spark that lit the fuse of nationwide protests against Ben Ali’s 23-year-rule came in the western town of Sidi Bouzid in mid-December, when 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in protest at security forces shutting down his market stall.
Bouazizi became a symbol for Tunisian youth facing the hopelessness of a 30-percent unemployment rate.
The new transitional government has pledged to hold free presidential and legislative elections within six months. It also promised an amnesty law and the lifting of a ban on all opposition parties.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy meanwhile told prime minister Ghannouchi that France — Tunisia’s former colonial ruler — would be “in the front row (of countries) helping the Tunisian people to make its desire to build a democratic and prosperous Tunisia come true,” a statement issued in Paris said.
French Economy Minister Christine Lagarde and European Affairs Minister Laurent Wauquiez are to have talks with Tunisian leaders in Tunis next week.
Abid Briki of the UGTT, the main union behind the protests, told Italian magazine Left that comes out on Friday, “The social situation (in Tunisia) is becoming explosive.
“If the government doesn’t start immediate negotiations with social players there is a risk that no one will be able to control the country any more.”
“There is a problem of managing the post-revolution period. It’s time for practical action because we have 500,000 unemployed people.”
Briki estimated unemployment in inland areas of the north African country at 22-23 percent in cities “where there is nothing, not even roads to reach them”.