TUNIS, Tunisia - Of all of the leaders of the Middle East, he is one of the least known.
Most Americans would not even recognize his name. His pictures show an austere, elegant and handsome man - distant and authoritative - and even those who know him seem to feel a certain air of historic Moorish mystery hanging over him.
Yet in person, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, for 10 years the president of Tunisia, is something else.
Open, charming, passionate about issues, he is also analytical, computer crazy and more than a little sentimental about his people, particularly the poor. He listens to others carefully and seems to have the talent of absorbing, molding and then putting into practice their ideas.
For many years head of intelligence in a country with such problematic neighbors as Libya and Algeria, he is described by aides as paradoxically both shrewd and gentle at the same time. "Nobody can get away with anything but him," said one minister admiringly.
But quite above and beyond all of that, by virtually all available measures, Mr. Ben Ali is rapidly becoming recognized in development circles as one of the most successful leaders, not only in the Middle East but indeed in the world.
The key to putting Tunisia's successes under his leadership into historic perspective came to me one day from the country's respected scholar, the minister of culture, Abdelbaki Hermassi.
"It's obvious that all the `grand ideologies' are in crisis," he mused. "Whether with pan-Arabism or pan-Islamicism, it is clear we are living in a much more complex world and a time when people are not going for the simplest solutions. In this kind of post-ideological period, people will judge their leadership on the chances in life it offers them."
I asked Mr. Ben Ali about these ideas in his first major interview with an American journalist, conducted half in written answers and half in personal discussion in his gorgeous gold office in the presidential Carthage Palace here. And his answers were revealing.
"I would state the question differently," he said. "It is the ideological debate that is in crisis - or that at least has ceased to be relevant since the collapse of communism. It is also true that fundamental divergences exist within the liberal debate today, separating to varying degrees those who advocate `hard-line' capitalism from those with a more social vision of the system.
"This is what gives pragmatism, moderation and the human social and cultural aspects an essential value in building a method of development, managing the transition and ultimately succeeding. This is the path we have taken, a path where freedom is at the heart of all our choices." Today, that "path" has led Tunisia to become the first Arab and North African country to be chosen by the European Union for a free-market agreement.
Two-thirds of the people are now considered middle class and the same percentage own their own home, according to the World Bank. Culture is blossoming and women work freely in every profession. Tunisia now has more tourists a year than Egypt - 5 million - and more than 1,000 foreign companies that work freely here.
But there was nothing in the 1980s to make such an evolution inevitable. By then, the respected but elderly father of the country, President Habib Bourguiba, who had set Tunisia on a forward path in the 1960s with massive investment in education - an astonishing 30 percent of the national budget - was failing physically and mentally.
A THINKING REGIME
The earlier lure of communism as the ideology of choice had been taken over by the next ideology to offer an absolutist answer to all human questions, radical Islamic fundamentalism, and Tunisia was one of the first targets.
It was only when Mr. Bourguiba's doctors proclaimed him incapable of ruling the country that Mr. …