Secret audio sheds light on toppled dictator’s frantic final hours

Ben Ali on the plane

The BBC has obtained extraordinary recordings of what we believe are phone calls made by a former Middle Eastern dictator, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, as he left the country in 2011. These final moments show how his Authority collapsed, sealing the fate of his 23-year dictatorship and sparking the wave of pro-democracy “Arab Spring” uprisings in the region.

Short gray presentation line

Short gray presentation line

The recordings were forensically analyzed by audio experts who found no evidence of tampering or manipulation. Ben Ali died in exile in 2019, but the BBC has also released these recordings to people who know the people involved, and they believe the voices are genuine, further bolstering the authenticity of the recordings. However, some of those involved strongly dispute their veracity.

If genuine, the recordings provide incredible insight into Ben Ali’s shift in mood over the last 48 hours of his rule, as he slowly begins to grasp the true impact of the protests rocking his fearsome police state.

The recordings – excerpts of which are included below – begin on the evening of January 13, 2011. The first is a call to a close confidant, believed to be Tarak Ben Ammar, a successful media mogul known for encouraging director George Lucas to film the first Star Wars movie in Tunisia. Earlier in the day, Ben Ali gave a televised address to the nation, in an attempt to stifle the momentum of the mass protests.

Widespread discontent over economic hardship and decades of autocratic rule and corruption erupted weeks earlier after a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire when authorities prevented him from selling products in the town of Sidi Bouzid. Before January 13 around 100 people had died in the protests, which now invaded the streets of the capital.

But Ben Ali seems reassured when Ben Ammar seems to shower him with praise.

“You were great, it’s the Ben Ali we were waiting for!” Ben Ammar says in the recording.

Ben Ali depreciates, believing that his speech lacked fluidity, but his confidant reassures him.

“Not at all… It’s a historic comeback. You’re a man of the people. You speak their language,” said his friend.

Ben Ali laughs with what looks like relief. But the speech delivered to the Tunisian public is clearly not enough. The next day, protests escalate and threaten to overrun the Interior Ministry. Arrangements are being made for Ben Ali’s family to fly out of the country for their own safety – to Saudi Arabia – and Ben Ali is then persuaded to escort them, he says.

The content and timing of upcoming recordings place Ben Ali on this flight.

He can be heard making a series of increasingly frantic calls to three people – believed to be his defense minister, the army chief and a close confidant – Kamel Eltaief.

He begins by interviewing someone we understand to be Defense Minister Ridha Grira about the situation on the ground in Tunisia. Grira announces to him that an interim president is now in place. Ben Ali asks Grira to repeat this information three times, before replying that he will be back in the country “in a few hours”.

He then calls a man whom the BBC considers a close confidant, Kamel Eltaief. Ben Ali tells Eltaief that the Minister of Defense has reassured him that events are under control.

Eltaief brutally corrects this hypothesis.

“No, no, no. The situation is changing rapidly and the army is not enough,” his friend told him.

Ben Ali interrupts him to ask: “Do you advise me to come back now or not? He must repeat the question three more times before Eltaief answers correctly.

“Things are not going well,” Eltaief finally replies.

Ben Ali then makes a phone call to what is believed to be the head of the army, General Rachid Ammar. Ammar doesn’t seem to recognize the voice on the line. “I am the president,” Ben Ali must tell him.

Ammar reassures him that “everything is fine”. Again, Ben Ali asks the same question he asked Eltaief – should he return to Tunisia now? Rachid tells him that it would be better if he “waits a bit”.

“When we see that you can come back, we will let you know, Mr. President,” Ammar told Ben Ali.

He calls his defense minister again, asking him again if he should go home, and this time Grira is more blunt, telling Ben Ali he “cannot guarantee his safety” if he does. .

Just after midnight, President Ben Ali’s plane lands in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He orders the pilot to prepare for his return trip, and he and his family are escorted to King Faisal’s palace guesthouse.

But the pilot disobeys the order. He abandons Ben Ali and flies to Tunisia.

Awakened in Saudi Arabia the next morning, Ben Ali recalled his defense minister. Grira admits that the administration does not control what happens on the streets. He tells Ben Ali that there is even talk of a coup. Ben Ali denounces this action of the “Islamists”, before speaking once again of his return to the country.

Grira now appears to be attempting to level up with her boss.

“There’s anger in the streets in a way that I can’t describe,” Grira says. He seems keen to be clear with the president, adding: ‘So you can’t say I misled you, and the decision is yours.’

Ben Ali tries to defend his reputation. “What have I done with the street? I served it.

“I’m giving you the situation, not an explanation,” replies Grira.

Maya Jeridi, secretary general of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, takes part in a demonstration, Tunis, January 14, 2011

Maya Jeridi, leader of the opposition party, takes part in a demonstration, Tunis, January 14, 2011

  • On 17 December 2010, a young Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire after being banned from selling products

  • His act and death sparked mass protests – more than 100 people died in the violence

  • President Ben Ali delivered a speech to the nation on January 13 in which he pledged action on food prices

  • That evening, Ben Ali flew with his family to Saudi Arabia

Within hours, a new government was formed in Tunisia – a government in which several of the same ministers, including Grira, maintained their positions. Ben Ali was never to return to his native country, remaining in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, until his death in 2019.

Defense Minister Ridha Grira and army chief Rachid Ammar declined to comment on the recordings when contacted by the BBC. Ben Ali’s confidants Kamel Eltaief and Tarak Ben Ammar denied that the calls with them had taken place, Ben Ammar adding that he had not tried to reassure the president of his power.

The BBC spent more than a year undertaking research into the authenticity of the recordings. They have been analyzed by a number of leading forensic experts in the UK and US who have looked for signs of tampering or editing, or “deep fake” processing which artificially reproduces voices . No suggestion of any kind of manipulation could be found.

The BBC has also sought to confirm the identities of those interviewed by showing the relevant excerpts to people who know at least one of the speakers who appear to be overheard. Those consulted included three of Ben Ali’s top security officials, leaders of his political party and even an impersonator of the president’s voice.

All persons approached were able to identify the speakers and did not raise any issues of authenticity. Other evidence also supports the context of these calls, including previous statements by Defense Minister Grira and army chief Ammar that they spoke to the president while he was on the plane, the recollections of Ammar corresponding closely to the content of his call.

The recordings suggest how an autocrat who oversaw a repressive and feared surveillance state for 23 years had been left bewildered and at the mercy of his ministers’ instructions in his final moments in office. In 2011, while in exile in Saudi Arabia, Ben Ali was sentenced to life in absentia for the death of demonstrators during the revolution.

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