The BBC has obtained extraordinary recordings of what are believed to be phone calls made by former Tunisian ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali while flying out of the country in 2011.
These final moments show how his authority has crumbled, sealing the fate of his rule of 23 years and inspiring the Arab Spring wave of pro-democracy uprisings in the region.
The recordings, to which BBC News Arabic Documentaries had access, have been analyzed for experts forensic in audio, who found no evidence of tampering.
Ben Ali died in exile in 2019, but the BBC has shown the recordings to people who knew the individuals involved and believe the voices to be genuine, further supporting the authenticity of the recordings. However, some of the people involved insistently deny its veracity.
If genuine, the recordings give incredible insight into Ben Ali’s mood shift in the final hours of his rule, as he begins to understand the true impact of the protests sweeping his feared police state.
The recordings start on the night 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 shoot the first film of starwars in Tunisia.
Earlier in the day, Ben Ali had made a televised address to the nation in an effort to quash the momentum of the mass demonstrations.
Widespread discontent with economic difficulties and decades of autocratic rule and corruption had erupted weeks earlier after a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set fire in addition when officials prevented him from selling food in the town of Sidi Bouzid.
By January 13, nearly 100 people had been killed in the protests, which at that point were filling the streets of the capital.
But Ben Ali sounds calm when Ben Ammar seems to overwhelm him with praise.
“You were wonderful, this is the Ben Ali we have been waiting for!”says Ben Ammar on the recording.
Ben Ali sounds self-critical, saying his speech lacked fluency, but his confidant reassures him.
“Not at all… it’s a historic comeback. You are a man of the people. You speak their language,” his friend tells him.
Ben Ali laughs with what sounds like relief.
But the speech addressed to the Tunisian public was clearly not enough. The next day, the protests intensify and threaten to invade the Ministry of the Interior.
Arrangements are made for Ben Ali’s family take a flight take it out out of the country for his own safety, heading to Saudi Arabia, and he is convinced that the accompaniedñe.
The content and timing of the next recording place Ben Ali on this flight.
“Do you recommend I go back now?“
In the recordings, Ben Ali can be heard making a series of increasingly frantic calls to three people believed to be his minister of Defensa, the head of the army, and another close confidant: Kamel Eltaief.
He begins by asking someone we understand to be Defense Minister Ridha Grira about the situation on the ground in Tunisia.
Grira reveals to him that an interim president is now in place. Ben Ali asks him to repeat this information three times, before responding by saying that he will return to the country “in a few hours”.
He then calls a man, whom the BBC believes to be close confidant Kamel Eltaief. Ben Ali tells Eltaief that the Defense Minister assured him that events are under control.
Concisely, Eltaief corrects that assumption.
“No no no. The situation is changing rapidly and the army is not enough“, says his friend.
Ben Ali interrupts him to ask: “Do you recommend I go back now or not?” He has to repeat the question three times before Eltaief answers effectively.
“Things are not good,” Eltaief finally replies.
Ben Ali then makes a call to whom the BBC believes to be the head of the army, General Rachid Ammar. Ammar doesn’t seem to recognize the voice on the other end of the line. “I am the president”, Ben Ali has to tell him.
Ammar assures him that “everything is fine.” Once again, Ben Ali asks him the same question he asked Eltaief: if he should return to Tunisia at that very moment. Rachid tells him that it would be better if he waited “for a while”.
“When we see that he can come back, we will do it to know, Mr. president”Ammar tells Ben Ali.
He calls his defense minister again, asking if he should go home, and this time Grira is more direct, telling him that “cannot guarantee your safety” if it does.
“What have I done to the street?“
Just after midnight, President Ben Ali’s plane lands in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He orders the pilot to prepare for the return trip, and he and his family are escorted to King Faisal’s palace guesthouse.
But the pilot disobeys the order. Leave Ben Ali and return to Tunisia.
Waking up in Saudi Arabia the next morning, Ben Ali calls his defense minister again.
Grira admits that the administration has no control over what is happening on the streets and tells him that there is even talk of a hit ANDstate.
Ben Ali dismisses it as an action by “Islamists”, before speaking again of returning home.
Grira now seems to open up to his boss.
“There is rage in the streets that I cannot describe in any way,” Grira tells him.
He seems to want to be clear with the president, adding: “(I tell him) so that he cannot say that I deceived him and the decision is his.”
Ben Ali tries to defend his reputation: “What have I done to the street? ¡I have served you!”
“I’m telling you the situation, not (asking) an explanation,” Grira replies.
Within a few hours a new government was formed in Tunisia and many of the ministers, including Grira, kept their posts.
Ben Ali would never return to his homeland, staying in Jeddah 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 Tarek Ben Ammar, denied that the calls had taken place, while Ben Ammar added that he had not tried to reassure the president about his leadership.
The BBC has spent more than a year investigating the authenticity of the recordings.. They have been analyzed by audio forensic experts in the UK and US, who looked for signs of tampering or editing or processing. deep fake, that replicates voices artificially.
I dont know They found evidence of any tampering.
The BBC also sought to confirm the identity of those on the calls by playing excerpts relevant to individuals who know at least one of those apparently speaking on the recording.
Among those consulted are three of Ben Ali’s highest-level security officials, leaders of his political party and even a voice impersonator of the former president.
All those who were consulted were able to identify the speakers in the recordings and did not report suspicions about their authenticity.
Others evidences also corroboratesn the background of these calls, including earlier statements made by Defense Minister Grira and Army Chief Ammar. According to these, they spoke with the president while he was on the plane. Ammar’s testimony was similar to the content of the call.
The recordings show how an autocrat who led a repressive and feared state for 23 years was left in turmoil and at the mercy of the instructions of his ministers in his last moments in power.
In 2011, while in exile in Saudi Arabia, Ben Ali was sentenced to life in prison in absentia for the deaths of protesters during the revolution.
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