How a slap sparked Tunisia's revolution

Bob Simon reports on the protests that ousted a repressive government and spread to other nations

Tunisia had been a battleground before, but that was a long time ago. Hannibal, Carthaginians, Romans have all been there and all have left their mark.

At the Kasserine Pass, the U.S. Army fought its first major battle against the Germans in World War II and left nearly 3,000 soldiers behind in a cemetery few Americans even know about.

Until last winter, Ben Ali's Tunisia was calm. That's because the police state he created worked, as political activist Sihem Ben Sedrine discovered when she spoke out against Ben Ali and was arrested.

"They put me face to...the ground, and it's a very big man. And he started jumping on my neck, on, on my head, on my everywhere. And he was jumping on me," she told Simon.

Asked if he wanted her to say something, she said, "No, no, no nothing. It's just a punishment. You do not have the right to say no to Ben Ali."

After her release, the police took to dumping sewage at her front door and sabotaging her car.

"They cut the front brakes," she explained. "Twice. I had accident because the brakes were cut."

The repression was complimented by corruption. That was the specialty of Ben Ali's second wife, who was 20 years his junior and brought her extended family into the presidential palace, turning the seat of government into a mafia command post.

Mustapha Kamel Nabli was once a minister in Ben Ali's cabinet, then went into exile. He's back now as the governor of Tunisia's Central Bank.

"How much money do you think the Ben Ali family took for themselves over the years?" Simon asked.

"It's significant. I think it's in the billions of dollars," Nabli said.

The Ben Alis blanketed the country with luxury villas. They kicked people out of any other homes they liked. Investors, businessmen couldn't do anything without giving the family a piece of the action.

"You haven't used the word 'bribe,'" Simon pointed out.

"Oh, it's worse than a bribe," Nabli said. "I mean it's blunt corruption."

The 74-year-old Ben Ali saw himself as president for life. And he didn't want people to recognize that he wasn't getting any younger - he dyed his hair.

"Mubarak had dyed hair, pure black. What is it about these dictators in the Middle East and their dyed hair?" Simon asked.

"Those dictators try to look the way they looked when they took power, so they make people forget the amount of time they spent ruling them," Zied Mhirsi said.

Ben Ali was taken aback by the outbreak of unrest. He tried to calm people down with a PR campaign that was nothing short of grotesque. He went to a Tunis hospital with his entourage and paid a bedside visit to the fruit vendor Bouazizi, who was barely alive.

"That picture was shocking. You could see nothing of Bouazizi. He was surrounded by band-aids like a mummy. Obviously, he was in a coma. And then you have all these politicians coming inside the room," Mhirsi told Simon.