Tunisian President Zine
el-Abidine Ben Ali and his family’s ‘Mafia rule’
January 16, 2011, 8:35 pm
By Colin Freeman
A man carries goods from the house of Belhassen Trabelsi, the brother of the former President’s wife, Leila Ben Ali, in Sokra, 16 kms (10 miles) from Tunis, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2011. The Tunisian capital’s main train station has been burned to the ground, and many shops have been sacked and looted in violence that came after the North African nation’s president fled the country.(AP)
As Tunisia’s President Ben Ali is granted leave to remain in Saudi Arabia, the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the president and his family is coming into the spotlight.
Their preferred title was "Tunisia’s First Family". To the people they ruled over, though, president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his clan were known as "The Mafia" - a ruling clique whose greed and nepotism ultimately caused their downfall.
Following in the footsteps of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and numerous other deposed dictators, Mr Ben Ali was granted refuge in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, starting what will likely be a comfortable, if less than dignified, political retirement.
But as millions of Tunisians celebrated the end of his 23-year-long authoritarian rule, it was not just the 74-year-old president they were glad to see the back of.
Far more reviled, it seems, was his second wife Laila, a feisty brunette more than 20 years his junior, who was dubbed "The Regent of Carthage" for her power behind the throne.
A former hairdresser from a humble background, she stands accused of using her marriage to Mr Ben Ali to turn her family, the Trabelsis, into the desert nation’s most powerful business clique.
As of Saturday night, the former first couple were keeping a low profile. Mr Ben Ali was reported to have flown into the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah, where Idi Amin spent his final years.
Meanwhile rumours circulated that his wife, who is thought to have fled the country separately and beforehand, had headed for Dubai - a destination with which she is said to be well acquainted through shopping trips.
"All President Ben Ali’s power and wealth became concentrated in the family, and especially that of his wife," said Saad Djebbar, an Arab political analyst. "He was so arrogant that he undermined his own power base, alienating supporters in the party and the business community."
In public, the country’s First Lady had styled herself as one of the Arab world’s most progressive female politicians, heading charitable foundations and espousing feminism and women’s rights. But critics say that behind the scenes, she pursued an acquisitive agenda that saw her widely-likened to Imelda Marcos of the Philippines.
Few such criticisms ever emerged in Tunisia’s tame and highly-censored media - much of which is owned by members of the ruling family. But the government could not prevent Tunisians getting access on the internet to last year’s Wikileaks reports, in which former US ambassador Robert F. Godec penned several vivid snapshots of the elite’s pampered lifestyle.
In one, he described the astonishing opulence of a lunch date at the house of Mohamed Sakher El Materi, a billionaire businessman who is the president’s son-in-law and - until last week anyway - his rumoured heir apparent.
Sitting in a beachfront compound decorated with Roman artifacts, Mr Godec noted that ice cream and frozen yogurt had been flown from St Tropez, and that his host kept a pet tiger in a cage - a habit also shared by Saddam Hussein’s late son, Uday.
When many ordinary Tunisians struggled to even find jobs, he later noted, it was hardly surprising that such bling lifestyles did not endear the ruling family to their subjects.
"President Ben Ali’s extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption," Mr Godec wrote in a cable to Washington. "Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Ben Ali, and her extended family - the Trabelsis - provoke the greatest ire from Tunisians. Along with the numerous allegations of Trabelsi corruption are often barbs about their lack of education, low social status, and conspicuous consumption.
"While some of the complaints about the Trabelsi clan seem to emanate from a disdain for their nouveau riche inclinations, Tunisians also argue that the Trabelsis’ strong arm tactics and flagrant abuse of the system make them easy to hate."
Last week, demonstrators in the town of Hammamet, an up-market resort on Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast, attacked luxury villas identified as belonging to members of the president’s extended clan.
At one mansion, looters filmed themselves on mobile phones as they gleefully set fire to top-of-the-range sports utility vehicles and did wheelies on motorbikes across pristine lawns. According to some reports, local security forces had even suggested they loot the Trabelsi mansions rather than attack the police station.
Since then, rioters have turned their attentions to the Trabelsi’s business empire, looting shops and supermarkets identified as belonging to them.
There are, it seems, no shortage of potential targets. Leila’s brother Belhassen alone is said to own an airline, several hotels, two of Tunisia’s private radio stations, and a car assembly plant.
As Ambassador Godec noted, many foreign investors found it hard to operate in the country without giving a cut of their business to member of the ruling family. The McDonalds burger chain - not often hailed as the champion of ethical business practice - lost the chance of a franchise in Tunisia because of its refusal to grant it to someone with "family connections".
Just how much of their empire the Trabelsi family will be able to hold on to now that their chief patron has gone remains to be seen.
The president himself is said to have a personal fortune of around £3.5 billion, although last night, Tunisia’s old colonial ruler, France, said it had taken steps to ensure "suspicious financial movements" through its financial system would be blocked.
Meanwhile, Ben Ali’s son-in-law, Mr Materi, was said to have holed up in a £300-a-night VIP suite at hotel at Disneyland Paris, along with his wife Nesrine, 24, and other hangers-on. Four Tunisian bodyguards were said to be camped in the hotel lobby.
"The Tunisian Embassy in Paris was the first place they stayed, but when expat Tunisians started demonstrating outside they decided to move out to Disneyland," said a source at the theme park.
"The problem is that the entourage is so large that people started to notice them immediately. The women are dressed in designer clothes and look like princesses, covered in expensive jewellery, and Mercedes limousines are coming and going all the time."
In any case, they may not be able to stay much longer. on Saturday night a French government spokesman said members of the former ruling family were not welcome on French soil "and should leave".