A series of secretly registered phone calls believed to be made by former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali divulge his most trusted advisers urged him to stay away from Tunisia after he fled the nation in 2011.
The recordings, released by BBC News Arabic in the new documentary The Dictator’s Last Calls, reveal how the former leader went from being confident about his rule to being told that if he were to return his safety could not be guaranteed.
The first recording was on 13 January and was of a phone call purportedly between Ben Ali and a close confidant thought to be Tarak Ben Amma. That call came after Ben Ali made a televised speech to the country in which he tried to quell ongoing mass demonstrations against him.
The second call was with his defence minister, Ridha Grira, his army chief Rachid Ammar, and another close confidant the BBC reported to be Kamel ElTaief, a Tunisian businessman.
Grira relates to him an interim president is now in place, to which Ben Ali replies that he will be back in the country “in a few hours”.
Ben Ali is reported to have then called ElTaief, notifying him that the defence minister had reassured him that events were under control, to which ElTaief replied: “No, no, no. The situation is changing rapidly, and the army isn’t enough.”
ElTaief then reportedly told Ben Ali that “things aren’t good” when asked if the Tunisian leader should return.
After landing in Jeddah, Ben Ali called Grira once more, who told him there was talk of a coup.
Ben Ali dismissed this as the action of “Islamists”, and once more spoke about returning home. It is at this point Grira reportedly told him: “There’s anger on the streets in a way that I cannot describe. Mr President, I tell you with all honesty, we can’t guarantee your safety.”