Former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dies, aged 83

Divisive leader removed from power in Arab uprisings of 2011

FILE - In this Oct.11, 2009 file photo, then Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali waves from his car as he arrives at campaign rally in Rades, outside Tunis. A lawyer for the former Tunisian president ousted in the 2011 Arab Spring says Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been hospitalized in Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi, File)

Former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has died in Saudi Arabia, aged 83.

Ben Ali's lawyer, Mounir Ben Salha, said he died on Thursday in Jeddah and that his body would be taken to Makkah, awaiting the family's decision on his burial.

The divisive leader was removed from power in the country's 2011 uprising.

Before his political career, Ben Ali took part in local resistance against French colonial forces. He rose through the Tunisian political elite to become president in a 1987 coup.

Tunisians hailed his bloodless, non-violent takeover.

Ben Ali went on to make Tunisia a moderate voice in the Arab world.

Western governments regarded him as an effective bulwark against extremism despite criticism of his slow move towards democracy.

Ben Ali served as the country's leader for 23 years until unrest broke out in late 2010.

Growing frustration over unemployment and high prices snapped, sparked by the self-immolation of a market trader over his treatment by police.

A week ago, Mr Ben Salha said the former president was in a "critical condition", before denying reports that he had died.

"He is not dead but his state of health is bad," he said. "He has left hospital and is being cared for at his home. His condition is stabilising."

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said last week that on humanitarian grounds, Ben Ali could return to die in his own country, "like every Tunisian", should he wish.

He is survived by six children; three daughters by a first marriage and two daughters and a son by Leila Trabelsi.

Tunisia on Sunday held a presidential election, in which two outsiders – law professor Kais Saied and detained media mogul Nabil Karoui – made it through to a second-round run-off.

The country's first democratically elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, died in July aged 92, bringing the first round of the presidential polls forward by several months.

Under Ben Ali's watch, Tunisia was relatively untouched by the kind of extremist violence that racked neighbouring Algeria.

But a 2002 attack on a synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba killed 21 people, mostly German tourists. Investigators linked the attack to Al Qaeda.

After the 2011 uprising, security services struggled against extremists linked to ISIS.

Tunisians heard little about the former president's life in exile after a relative said that he had suffered a stroke there in early 2011.

A brief exception came in 2013 when an Instagram account created a buzz online for appearing to show the first photos of the deposed leader in exile, including one of him smiling in striped pyjamas.

In Tunisia, people slowly became indifferent to the fate of the former strongman.