Ben Ali’s Last Flight – Intimate Details From Judicial Files

Friday 15 January 202111:15 am
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On the eve of November 7, 1987, Tunisian Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali appeared most poised and composed. He had gathered the leaders of the state in a spacious hall inside the Ministry of Interior in preparation for a grand event.

On the other hand, Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba was sitting in one of the halls of Carthage Palace, uncharacteristically clear-headed, talking to his niece Saïda Sassi and Amor Chadli – the private doctor and director of the presidential office – about the chronicles of the Crusades that he often liked to talk about and recount its events.

At the same time, members of the specialized unit of the National Guards were leaving the air base in el-Aouina, heading towards the palace to end three decades of the rule of the “Al Mujahid Al Akbar” (the Greatest Mujahid), as Bourguiba often liked to call himself.

Between the years of 1987 and 2011, heavy waters ran beneath the bridges and slowly trickled out. Ben Ali reproduced the Bourguiba regime in another form, but he did not forget to repeat the same mistake made by his predecessor – which was failing to leave in time.

Praising him, General Charles de Gaulle wrote in his memoirs, “Bourguiba always knows how to be up to date with history,” but this knowledge betrayed him when he needed it to settle the decision over leaving the seat of government, just as it completely betrayed General Ben Ali.

On the evening of January 14th, 2011, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's procession marched to the airport of the military base in Aouina and boarded his plane towards the unknown, far away from the state and authority. As he smacked his palms together in dismay, he cast a final look towards the country from the same military base from which he had come to power 23 years earlier. A strip of his memories quickly flashed before his eyes in silence, only disturbed by the sound of the roaring engine of his final flight. The man’s ascent to power did not cost a single bullet, but his departure from that same power had cost him a great deal of ammunition and blood.

Ben Ali's sudden departure opened the door wide to questions about its causes and the details of its occurrence. To this day, there is still no definite answer, as the events of January 14, 2011 are still cloudy and remain shrouded in heavy fog. However, the judicial documents – which contain a number of statements made by key regime figures before the investigating judge following the revolution – shed some light on what happened that day.

The Morning of Escape

On the evening of January 13th, the Tunisian president made a televised appearance in a last-ditch effort to salvage the situation. The demonstrations would not cease nor stop, and deaths were in the dozens. For the first time ever, he spoke in a colloquial dialect. He seemed flustered and afraid.

On the evening of January 13th, Ben Ali made a televised appearance in a last-ditch effort. The demonstrations would not cease and deaths were in the dozens. For the first time ever, he spoke in a colloquial dialect. He seemed flustered and afraid.

He made promises of accountability, prosperity, and liberties and freedoms. He addressed the people with his famous phrase, "I understand you." But the announcement came several years too late and just doesn't work anymore. As soon as the president ended his speech, crowds of supporters of the ruling party took to roaming the streets, thanking “Mr. President” for this “historic declaration”. In parallel, the protests and demonstrations intensified in anger and rebellion.

The very next morning, the masses came out with the single slogan of, "Bread and water, but no Ben Ali". In the capital, protesters began to amass in the Mohammed Ali Square, the stronghold of the Tunisian General Labor Union. Then the crowds broke the cordon imposed on the Habib Bourguiba Avenue and entered it from various access points to gather in front of the gray building of the Interior Ministry, the historical symbol of the police state that Habib Bourguiba established and Ben Ali later strengthened. It seemed that things had completely gotten out of the regime's control.

In his testimony before the judiciary, Director of Military Intelligence General Ahmed Shabir said, “Since the morning I have been in my office following the events, especially the gathering that took place in the Muhammad Ali Square in the capital Tunis in front of the headquarters of the Tunisian General Labor Union. I noticed that many security personnel were surrendering their individual weapons to the military barracks, and such unjustified behavior just surprised me. I also noticed how many of the officers were deliberately absent from their work centers and failed to attend. 13 security headquarters were attacked, and a state of restlessness was also registered inside prisons. A security vacuum also saw residential neighborhoods and shops attacked and targeted, as well as the homes of members of the Trabelsi family – the in-laws of President Ben Ali.

Following the failure of the speech on the 13th night, Ben Ali sensed that things were starting to get out of control, while security staff was continually receiving a torrent of intel from various sources, which increased the level of terror among their ranks.

After the protesters surrounded the Ministry of Interior, Army Chief of Staff General Rachid Ammar said in his judicial statement that on the morning of January 14th, he received a call from General Ali Seraiti, the head of Presidential Security, asking him to reinforce the security units stationed at the intersection of Habib Bourguiba Avenue. He noticed that he was uneasy and afraid of the masses heading towards the presidential palace.

The Onset of Panic

Hours later, the demonstrations intensified throughout the country, and Habib Bourguiba Avenue was filled from one end to the other. The president began to think about imposing a state of emergency, dissolving the government, and having the family leave the country for a few days until things calmed down, for it seemed the people’s anger towards the president's wife and in-laws outweighed the anger directed at him.

Mohsen Rahim, the Presidential Chief of Protocol, was sitting in his office in the Carthage Palace, when the president summoned him in haste. It was only 12 noon at the time. He was asked to prepare the presidential plane that would transport his wife, his son Muhammad, and his daughter Halima to Saudi Arabia to perform the Umrah Muslim ritual. He literally said to him, “The current atmosphere is not good, and the situation is unstable. They will travel for a change of pace and perform Umrah. Prepare the plane and I will later inform you regarding the timing.” Rahim continues, “The president did not intend to travel with his family. So, I contacted the director of Tunisian Airlines and coordinated with him, as is always the case in such instances.”

In the meantime, the president was closely following the security situation with great concern, and intel continued to flow undeterred to the security apparatus and the presidency. Chief of Staff General Ammar said, “General Seraiti came back and called me again at 2:14 in the afternoon. He informed me that President Ben Ali had received information that the leader of the Ennahda Movement Rached Ghannouchi would enter the country and that the Tunis-Carthage International Airport wasn’t one of the guarded and secured points in the capital. Ali Seraiti feared this intel that had been received from security services outside the country. He also asked me to reinforce protection around the homes of some members of the Trabelsi family, but I refused and told him that the army only protects state institutions.”

He goes on to say, “Meanwhile, Minister of Defense Ridha Grira called me and informed me that President Ben Ali called him and told him that a helicopter was flying over the presidential palace, intending to attempt a landing inside with members of the Anti-Terrorist Brigade (BAT) on board. He also told him that the president gave Ali Seraiti instructions to shoot down the helicopter with those in it, using a 12.7 mm weapon. The defense minister verified the information and informed the president of the presence of military helicopters coming from the Bizerte Base on a mission to reinforce the military presence in the capital. So the president said to him: It seems that Seraiti is terrified.”

Seraiti was not the only one who was alarmed, as panic was coursing throughout the bulk of the entire regime.

A Floundering Regime

Regime forces succeeded in dispelling the immense demonstration in front of the Interior Ministry, but that did not suffice to dispel the chaos that swept the country. The homes of the president's in-laws and his family were a target of protesters, while shops were looted by gangs.

At 3 pm, the President decided to place the Army Chief of Staff as a coordinator of operations in the Ministry of Interior to oversee taking control of the situation. General Ahmed Shabir said, “At about 3 o'clock, I was called to the office of the Minister of Defense Ridha Grira who said, ‘General Ammar will head to coordinate at the Interior Ministry on the orders of the President, and you will head to the Army Operations base to take his place coordinating operations.’ I noticed an apparent fear on the Minister of Defense from Ali Seraiti. He literally said: ‘I am beginning to suspect Seraiti.’ I was surprised at such a statement that he did not even justify.”

The sudden departure of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali opened the door wide to questions about its causes and its details. To this day, there is still no definite answer, as the events of January 14, 2011 are still cloudy and shrouded in heavy fog.

At the Carthage Palace, the President had made up his mind and decided that the plane would take off at six in the evening. But Mohsen Rahim cites a conversation that took place between him and General Seraiti after the President informed him of the date of the trip, saying, “General Seraiti told me that even if the presidential plane was not ready, let's go to the military airport and wait there, for army men are our sons. I understood from his words that he would feel safe in the military airport and that his presence in the presidential palace had become a threat to his and the President's life, especially after contacting the governor at the Tunis-Carthage Airport, but another person answered him and introduced himself as Samir Tarhouni. Seraiti told me there is a conspiracy between the commandos of the guard and the police commandos.”

Before that, at 2:40 pm, commander of the Anti-Terrorism Brigade Samir Tarhouni received a call from Agent Hafez al-Aouni, an officer that works in the planes’ protection squad, stating that a large number of the family members of Ben Ali and his wife Leila were gathering in one of the airport’s lounges in preparation for escape. Tarhouni decided on his own and without any instructions – according to his testimony before the judiciary – to go to the airport with a security squad and arrest the president's relatives.

At 2:40 pm, commander of the Anti-Terrorism Brigade Tarhouni received a call from the airplanes protection squad saying a large number of the family members of Ben Ali and his wife were gathering in the airport’s lounge in preparation for escape

An atmosphere of mistrust had begun to form among the main pillars of the regime. Ben Ali was intercepting hundreds of pieces of intel flowing from various – and sometimes even conflicting – sources. However, General Ammar was questioning the intentions of Tarhouni and whoever was standing behind him. In his testimony before the court, he says, “At 4:15 pm, I received a call from the Minister of Defense, who said to me, ‘Have you given instructions to prevent the planes from taking off?’ as someone told the President that I prevented the takeoff of any plane from Tunis-Carthage Airport. In another call, the Minister of Defense informed me that the President told him that there were Brotherhood infiltrators working in the Anti-Terrorism Brigade that had detained members of his family at the airport, and the President was asking to attack them with bullets and eliminate them. I believe that Tarhouni and his aide were conspiring and taking orders from someone whose identity I do not know.”

Speaking on this ambiguous and suspicious situation, Sami Sik Salem – a colonel in the Presidential Security Service who was on duty at the Carthage Palace that day – says, “At four o'clock in the afternoon, I was in the process of inspecting the units. On my way back, Director of Presidential Security General Ali Seraiti intercepted me while driving a car at a crazy speed, accompanied by Director of Presidential Protocol Mohsen Raheem. Immediately afterwards, I heard on the radio that President Ben Ali's convoy left towards the Sidi Dhrif Presidential Palace in Sidi Bou Said, but I soon got a second call stating that the convoy did not turn towards Sidi Bou Said. So I headed directly to the operations room, where I was informed that the president's convoy went to the airport where the presidential plane is being prepared.”

Colonel Salem goes on to elaborate in his testimony before the judiciary, “Inside the room I listened to many calls indicating that thousands of people living in La Marsa and Le Kram wanting to attack the Presidential Palace, along with the presence of a warship facing the presidential palace and a military helicopter flying overhead.”

I called Lieutenant Colonel Elias Zallaq, the Presidential Security officer in charge of official and presidential escorts, and inquired about the latest developments, and he told me that he did not know anything. I called General Seraiti, but he did not answer me, so my fears increased. I then called my immediate supervisor, Colonel Adnan Al-Hattab, who informed me that he was not at the workplace and he told me, ‘find yourself a place and hide in it’. I noticed that some of the staff working in the presidential palace had left.”

The Presidential Convoy On the Move

Tunis Airlines pilot Mahmoud Sheikh Rouhou was following the news at his home that afternoon, when he received a call at four o'clock from his manager Nabil El-Shetawi. He told him, "We must prepare the presidential plane as soon as possible to take the President's family to Jeddah with a very limited crew, without even stocking on food. So I contacted the airport to issue a flight plan and acquire permit passes over the airspace from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia.”

In the meantime, the convoy of the President and his family had arrived at El Aouina, north of the capital, where the military airport is located. The death of the regime had begun to slowly weave its shrouds little by little. Director of Presidential Protocol Mohsen Raheem says, “We arrived at the military air base and directly entered the honorary hall, but President Ben Ali refused to go down and ordered to directly head to the aircraft depot, where he disembarked with his wife Laila, his son, daughter Halima, her fiancé Mahdi bin Qaid, his private waiter Kamal Al-Badiri, and their two domestic helpers from the Philippines called Iman and Haninah.”

Pilot Mahmoud Sheikh says, “I arrived at the airport at five o'clock and found the plane inside the warehouse amid a heavy presence of members of the Presidential Security carrying rifles. The fuel truck was refueling the plane right in the middle of the warehouse in a very dangerous procedure. The Presidential Security Director asked me to draw up a flight plan headed towards an airport in the Tunisian island of Djerba and then travel to Jeddah without informing anyone, but I refused due to the dangerous nature of the operation, since we cannot enter any international airspaces without a permit. So they told me that we will travel to Djerba and then decide.”

Mohsen Rahim continues with his testimony of those moments saying, “While waiting for the completion of the refueling process, the bags – which were neither large nor heavy – were shipped. One of the security personnel took down General Seraiti's bag and coat from the plane after the president told him, ‘There is no need to board, I will only accompany them to make sure they arrive and then come back’. Seraiti replied, 'Don't return until I call you, Mr. President.' Then the president and his family left without even undergoing the routine procedure of stamping their passports.”

The Historic Statement

Inside the operations room of the Interior Ministry, Chief of Staff Rashid Ammar was continuing in carryubg out the tasks of coordination between the forces, until he received a call at 5:55 pm – that is, five minutes before the president's plane flew – from Colonel Sami Sik Salem. “He sounded very troubled and told me, ‘Mr. General, you should come to the palace now’, so I told him I would only come under instructions from the Ministry of Defense. I called the Minister of Defense, who I found was aware of the president’s escape, and I was surprised that I was not informed by the Interior and Defense Ministries about the President's exit from the country. The minister also informed me of an operation to arrest Ali Seraiti at the air base in El Aouina.”

Libya's Ambassador to KSA wrote in his journals: Comrade Colonel [Gaddafi] told me to contact [Ben Ali] and tell him we are coming to him in Jeddah and we will not desert him. We must communicate with the army to carry out a coup and bring him back.

Regarding these events, Colonel Salem added in his testimony, “I called General Rashid Ammar and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who brought me Captain Bashir Shahida, chief of the Prime Minister’s security squad. I told him, ‘The president took himself and his family and fled the country. Tunisia is in your responsibility now, so do not lead us astray.’ He then informed me that he is not the one directly concerned regarding this and that the situation requires the joint presence of the Speaker of Parliament, the Head of the Constitutional Council, and the President of the Chamber of Advisors. That’s when I informed him that I would send him an armored vehicle and begged him to join us in the presidential palace in Carthage, promising him to bring in the aforementioned heads of state. I then called them and provided them with cars to bring them to the palace. But Head of the Constitutional Council Fathi Abdul Nazer switched off his phone when the presidential car arrived in front of his house.”

He continues, “When we started filming the speech – which was later broadcasted on the official channel – Parliament Speaker Fouad Mebazaa got up from his chair in front of the camera and said, 'I am sick, I cannot go on. Here is Abdullah Kallel, President of the Chamber of Advisors.’ That’s when I opposed him, saying, 'No, not Abdullah Kallel,' after one of the attendees whispered in my ear, 'Not Kallel, the country will ignite even more.' Then the Prime Minister intervened with the Tunisian constitution pamphlet in his hand, saying, 'We can rely on Article 56 of the constitution’.”

Meanwhile, state television began broadcasting patriotic songs, announcing that a historical statement was on its way of being aired. On the way, Lead Police Commissioner Youssef Sassi was carrying the video tape to the TV headquarters in the northern region.

The Prime Minister relied on Article 56 of the old Tunisian constitution to legally justify the change. It says, “The President, if unable to perform his duties, may temporarily delegate his power and authority to the Prime Minister except for the right to dissolve the House of Representatives. During this period of temporary ‘excuse from duties’ occurring to the President, the government will remain in place until this excuse from duties comes to an end, even if the government is subjected to blame. The President informs the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Chamber of Advisors of his temporary delegation of his powers.”

But the next day, they reversed the matter and relied on Article 57, which allows the Speaker of Parliament to be president "on a temporary basis."

The Betrayal

The president’s plane took off on schedule at 6pm. Describing the flight’s departure and what transpired that evening in his statement, the pilot says, “As the plane starts moving, we could see the presidential guard on either side of the runway pointing their rifles towards it – perhaps as a last precaution in case we refused to take off. When the plane was over Djerba, I radioed the control tower in Tripoli (Libya) and informed them that the president and his family were on board. Ben Ali then walked up to the cockpit and told me not to mention that the president was there. I radioed back and said that only the president’s family was on board, and we received flight clearance over Libya and Egypt until we reached Saudi airspace.”

During the flight, Ben Ali called the army’s chief commander while on board. General Ammar provides, “After watching Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi’s speech on the state channel, I received a phone call from President Ben Ali at 8:20 pm, I think. He asked, ‘what’s the situation right now? Do you have things under control? Can I get back to the country tonight?’ I told him, ‘I can’t answer that just yet, Mr. President. The situation is not very clear.’ He said, ‘I’ll call you tomorrow, General.’ His voice was shaky, and he hasn’t contacted me since.”

Ben Ali tried to call the Prime Minister and the Speaker Of Parliament, indignant about what had happened behind his back. Colonel Salem says, “After the statement was broadcasted on TV, and while we were in one of the presidential suite’s offices, Officer Muntaser al-Khiyari came running to us, with the private phone of the president’s butler Hasan al-Wartani in hand. He addressed Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi directly and said, ‘Mr. President is requesting you.’ I didn’t hear the conversation, but I understood that the president faulted him for his speech and threatened that he would be back in Tunis by sunrise.”

In his deposition, Speaker of Parliament Fouad Mebazaa later stated that that the President had called him around the same time he contacted the Prime Minister in the Presidential Palace following his speech. He told Mebazaa to revoke the measures because he was coming back to Tunis, and Mebazaa informed him that his return was just impossible.

Recounting the remainder of Ben Ali’s final trip as president, the plane’s pilot says, “When we reached Jeddah’s airport, we contacted the control tower and were informed that the airport was locked down due to stormy weather and heavy rainfall. [We were told] the airport of Al-Madinah Al-Munawwarah was at full capacity, and that we would have to head to Taif Airport. I asked the tower to let us try to land on the runway anyway, and we succeeded.”

Before heading to the royal reception hall with his family, Ben Ali told the plane’s crew to “go to the hotel and rest. We will be back soon.” Meanwhile, the TV sets in the hall were tuned to Al Jazeera channel, which displayed news of the president’s escape in bold red. Ben Ali was upset and thought he had been betrayed by those closest to him.

Upon arriving in Saudi Arabia, Ben Ali once again attempted to contact the Prime Minister late at night. General Rashid Ammar describes the call, saying, “Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi had gone to the headquarters of the Interior Ministry with the Minister of Defense Ridha Grira. While there, he received a call from Ben Ali, who was surprised of the action being taken. Ghannouchi told him the measures were constitutional and legal. He literally told him ‘There is a vacuum… The country cannot take a power vacuum, and we followed the law.’”

But the final blow came from the final flight’s plane. The plane’s pilot, Mahmoud Sheikh Ruhu, remembers the hours following their arrival at Jeddah Airport and leaving Ben Ali. “I called the head of the Tunisian airlines – my immediate boss and first authority for the aircraft – and informed him that we would rather head back immediately. He told me to that he would call me back, and fifteen minutes later, he phoned and said to ‘return with the plane.’ We headed back to Tunisia at around 5 am and handed the plane over in the presence of official military forces.”

Ben Ali was adamant about returning to the country the following day. In his memoirs, Mohammed Saeed al-Qashat, Libya’s former Ambassador to Riyadh and one of the few people to meet Ben Ali during his Saudi exile, recounts hearing Ben Ali say: “I left the plane in Jeddah to perform Umrah. When I returned, I found that the plane had departed. They had phoned the pilot and told him they were in agreement with the president that the plane should return and leave me behind. I hadn’t agreed to anything with anyone.”

In his deposition to the judge, Army Chief of Staff General Rachid Ammar says, “It is my personal conviction that there was no reason for the former president to leave the country. There was no justification for the sudden departure, nor do I believe that he left because of what Lieutenant-Colonel Samir Tarhouni did in the Tunis-Carthage Airport – especially since he was planning to send his family away and not leave himself. He did not even pack his clothes. But I always wonder about the true reason that made the president switch to the military airport in light of the declining security situation and overall chaos.”

While a lot of mystery engulfs the events leading up to Ben Ali’s speedy departure – and despite many depositions provided by state figures in court and to the media — one testimony, given by General Ali Seraiti, head of the Presidential Security, might be the final clue to unravel the secrets of the mysterious flight. In a public court session, Seraiti said, “When the time came, I did my job and put myself on the line on day 14. If I hadn’t, Ben Ali would have stayed in power till today, and Tunisia would have turned into Libya or Syria.”

Exile In Al-Hamra Palace

The morning of January 15, 2011 dawned on Ben Ali as a former president. He returned to Jeddah after completing the Umrah ritual and settled in the Al-Hamra Palace under the hospitality of his friend, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz.

In western Tripoli, Ambassador Mohammed Saeed al-Qashat was preparing to settle down following years of service in Riyadh. But Ben Ali's escape turned the man’s life around once again and scattered his plans with travel.

Al-Qashat says in his journals, “Sometime near the end of January 2011, I received a call from our embassy staff in Riyadh telling me that President Ben Ali is asking for my phone number and wants to contact me. I informed comrade Colonel [Muammar Gaddafi] about the matter, so he told me to contact him and ‘tell him that you are going to him in Jeddah and encourage him that we will not desert him.’ The colonel also recommended several points for me to inform Ben Ali, including the suggestion that we would like him to leave Saudi Arabia to a country where he can intermingle with people and speak freely, preferably in Europe, and that we must communicate with the army to carry out a coup and bring him back to power. The next morning, I boarded the plane headed towards Amman and from there to Jeddah. On the morning of January 27th, I called Ben Ali and informed him that I was coming to him.”

Ambassador Al-Qashat was the first guest to visit Ben Ali in his new exile and the only one able to relay his condition under a strict Saudi cordon that had been imposed on him from the first day. Al-Qashat says, “He was staying in the Al-Hamra Palace under the supervision and guard of Major General Saud Al-Daoud, who greeted me and ushered me towards a side room (salon) at the entrance to the palace. He left me after he sent me a waiter with coffee and dates, as is the custom of the people of Saudi Arabia. After a while, Ben Ali – who was basically in the same shape that we had been seeing him on television – entered. He embraced me and asked of the comrade Colonel’s (Muammar Gaddafi) condition, saying that he is the only friend he trusts. Then he said, 'Inform the comrade commander that I did not run away, but when events developed and unfolded, my wife thought that she would go for Umrah and insisted that I go with her’.”

He goes on, “He listed to me some members (as mentioned in the journals) in my ear, saying if only some friendly countries intervene with the current government to have us welcomed in Tunisia and remain under house arrest. If this is done, I can propel the current state of affairs forward. Just give me three months, I can work on everything. I just need the help of the comrade commander, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and the King of Morocco. I returned to Libya and met the comrade Colonel and recounted to him the talk I had with Ben Ali. In turn, he asked me to go back to him and reassure him that we are working for his return to his homeland and he has to scale up his contact and communications with the inside – with his aides in the army and security. Later, I went back to meet Ben Ali and relayed the message of the Colonel. He told me that if the army would intervene and declare a state of emergency, we could intervene then. The degeneration must intensify until the army comes out to protect properties and declare a state of emergency, after which it would become easier for us to intervene.”

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