LONDON (Reuters) - The Tunisian army struck the mortal blow against Zine al Abedine Ben Ali’s rule when it ignored orders to shoot protesters, making it unlikely he could crush a popular uprising by force, diplomats and analysts said.
Details of discussions among senior officials in the final days of Ben Ali’s 23 years in power remain obscure, but it is clear the army had a decisive role in removing the strongman, severely weakened by an unprecedented popular revolt.
Its withdrawal of support was made in the teeth of tough resistance from his associates, notably loyalists in the police.
The position of foreign powers, in particular the United States, may also have influenced events, analysts said.
In an interview with Le Parisien newspaper, Admiral Jacques Lanxade, a former French chief of staff and later ambassador to Tunisia, suggested the army made a pivotal decision in refusing to open fire in the days leading up to his January 14 fall.
“It’s the army which walked out on Ben Ali when it refused - unlike the regime’s police -- to fire on the crowds,” he said.
“Faced with this veritable groundswell of the Tunisian population, Ben Ali fled because he became aware of the impossibility of him re-establishing the situation when those whom he had counted on had abandoned him.”
“The chief of staff of the land army, General Rachid Ammar, resigned, refusing to get the army to open fire, and it is probably he who advised Ben Ali to go, telling him ‘You’re finished’,” Lanxade said.
Spanish newspaper El Pais quoted Lanxade as saying the army now was playing a “stabilizing and moderating role,” working to end violence instigated by Ben Ali’s presidential police and security forces.
“When they believe they are in danger, Tunisians now call the Army, which goes to defend them, and not the police.”
In Madrid, a Spanish government source said Ben Ali appeared to have “tried to force the army to open fire against civilians, and the head of the army forced him out. This was not pressure from the street.”
Public and private statements by foreign powers may also have helped convince Ben Ali the game was up, analysts, diplomats and some media reports say.
On Wednesday January 12 Washington’s made plain its displeasure with Ben Ali’s handling of the protests when the State Department said it was deeply concerned by reports of the use of excessive force “by the government of Tunisia.”
The following day, in a rare criticism by former colonial power France, long a close ally of Ben Ali, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon chimed in by condemning the “disproportionate use of force by the authorities.”
A few hours later Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Qatar making a strong appeal for better and more responsive government in the Arab world.
Meanwhile several countries, including the United States, advised citizens to stay away, threatening the tourism trade which is Tunisia’s economic lifeblood.
On Thursday, according to some accounts, Ben Ali was sending a message through diplomatic channels that he was in control of the street situation, just one day before he accepted defeat.
On Friday afternoon that all changed when he evidently accepted that his situation had become impossible.
French newspaper Le Monde reported that some European governments suspected that Libyan intelligence had helped get Ben Ali out of the country.
A Libyan analyst with long experience of Libyan intelligence agreed that Libyan spies had played a role “for the sake of preserving the stability of Tunisia.” He declined to elaborate.
Asked for his sense of Ben Ali’s final hours, Michael Willis, lecturer in North African politics at Oxford University, said the actions of Ben Ali’s inner circle were decisive, within the context of the upheaval on the streets.
“Was there a palace coup in Tunisia? Ultimately yes, in the sense that people in the party of the security forces probably said to Ben Ali ‘Go’,” he said.
“But by then the popular movement was so far advanced. His departure was made possible only by a month of protest and sacrifice.”
Additional reporting by Paul Taylor, Fiona Ortiz and Sarah Marsh; Editing by Jon Boyle