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Tunisia's Ben Ali: A cult of personality ends

His face was plastered all over Tunisia, and the message was piercing: An ageless and ubiquitous leader with a seemingly endless grip on power.

Then came unprecedented riots and his ouster, and the prevailing image was of a once-unthinkable nature: On video-sharing sites, Tunisians watched footage of protesters setting light to the photo of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, their leader of 23 years.

Ben Ali had deftly managed the economy of his small country of 10 million, a beach haven for tourists and beacon of stability in volatile North Africa. It seemed as though there was a tradeoff with his people. There was a lack of civil rights and little or no freedom of speech, but a better quality of life than in neighboring countries like Algeria and Libya.

He had won frequent praise from abroad for presiding over reforms to make the economy more competitive and attract business; growth last year was at 3.1 percent.

But unemployment — officially measured at 14 percent — led to his downfall. Despite outsourcing jobs from Europe, there wasn't enough work for the country's many graduates and despair was palpable.

How Tunisia proceeds is far from clear.

Frederic Volpi, a senior lecturer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a scholar of the region, said Ben Ali prevented potential successors from emerging and sent many opponents to jail or into exile.

He concentrated power in the hands of a few trusted families. Critics complained of cronyism and nepotism, saying that Ben Ali's wife, Leila, had catapulted members of her family into positions of influence.

A professional army officer, he was responsible for Tunisia's internal security throughout a 1985 confrontation with neighboring Libya and a crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists.

He was briefly prime minister in 1987 before setting his sights on a bigger job — the presidency.

In a bloodless coup, Ben Ali seized from from the then-president-for-life Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern-day Tunisia who set the Muslim country on a pro-Western course after independence from France in 1956. Ben Ali removed Bourguiba from office for "incompetence," saying he had become too old, senile and sick to rule.

Ben Ali promised then that his leadership would "open the horizons to a truly democratic and evolved political life."

After a brief period of reforms early on, Tunisia's political evolution stopped.

Most opposition parties were illegal. Amnesty International said authorities infiltrated human rights groups and harassed dissenters. Reporters Without Borders branded Ben Ali a "press predator" who controlled the media.

A U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks called Tunisia a "police state" and said Ben Ali had lost touch with his people.

Ben Ali consistently won elections with overwhelming scores: In 2009 he was re-elected for a fifth five-year term with 89 percent of the vote. Beforehand, he had warned opponents they would face legal retaliation if they questioned the vote's fairness.

The Obama administration expressed concerns after the vote, but it also said the U.S. was committed to working with Ben Ali — an important regional partner for the U.S. in the fight against terrorism.

His regime come down especially hard on Islamist activists, jailing many and pressing others into exile.

Under his watch, Tunisia was relatively untouched by the kind of Islamic extremist violence that wracked neighboring Algeria, except for a 2002 attack on a synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba that killed 21 people, mostly German tourists. Investigators linked the attack to al-Qaida.

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Doland reported from Paris.