x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Nothing too small to seize for ousted Tunisian regime

The corrupt regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali exerted influence over every corner of the Tunisian economy, with disastrous effects.

TUNIS // Zine el Abidine Ben Ali presided over a regime that brought Tunisian businesses to their knees for more than 23 years. Only now, in the aftermath of his ousting on January 14, is the full extent of his family's grip becoming apparent.

Hichem Bouchamaoui, the chairman of Tunisia's Al Majd Holding, estimated the family of Mr Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, held sway over 60 per cent of economic activity in Tunisia.

They controlled everything from the country's largest state-owned enterprises - the likes of Tunisie Telecom, the country's biggest telecommunications operator - to the smallest stores and trading operations, he said.

"They would do things you wouldn't even believe," he said in the upstairs offices of a Tunis clinic his family business owns. "They tried to take this clinic from us. If they like something, they take it. They like your camera, they take it. Nothing is too low for them. Anything is up for grabs."

Around a dozen businessmen, and other people familiar with the regime's involvement in the business of the country, describe a kleptocratic dictator intent on seizing the wealth of his country by any means possible.

Moncef Cheikhrouhou, an economist who fled the country in 2000 after the Ben Ali clan seized his family's media business, said virtually nobody could escape the influence of the ruling family. The price for those who rebuffed their advances was exile or imprisonment.

"I refused corruption for 11 years, then when I was kicked out of my country that was the price I paid," he said. "It depends on what the project is and who the people are, but at the end of the day you had to work with them or not invest in the country." The Ben Ali regime operated like an organised crime ring, Mr Bouchamaoui said, taking protection money and extorting successful businessmen.

"They owned 60 per cent of the economy," Mr Bouchamaoui said.

"Fifty people owned 60 per cent of the economy and 11 million owned 40 per cent. It's unbelievable. We're talking about the mafia. We're talking about Al Capone."

Businessmen were wary of succeeding out of fear their profits would be taken. Some created scores of companies to put the regime off the scent of their success. Others were insulated by family, but few were lucky enough not to come into contact with the regime and its underlings.

Given the extent of the regime's corruption, cleaning it up has emerged as a high priority for any new government that emerges from elections planned later this year.

Tunisia's National Committee to Investigate Cases of Corruption, a body formed soon after Mr Ben Ali's fall, was dissolved recently - but not before it had received thousands of complaints.

The interim government has requested a freeze of the former president's assets worldwide. A group of French and Tunisian lawyers sent a letter to the UAECentral Bank urging the regulator to trace, identify and freeze all Mr Ben Ali assets.

Estimates vary, but the regime's holdings are thought to be valued in the tens of billions of dollars.

"They really put the whole country in their bag, little by little," said Alya Cherie Chammari, a lawyer in Tunisia's court of cassation and a member of the National Anti-Corruption Network, a group of corruption-busting lawyers and business executives.

"Tunisians had the feeling that there was a lot of corruption in daily life, but until now we didn't have an idea of the amount of sway they had over the economy. We have a lot of investigation and a lot of work ahead of us," the lawyer said.

With Tunisian politics in an uncertain state, it remains unclear what will happen with the Ben Ali regime assets that authorities are able to freeze and confiscate. Some groups in Tunisia, including its main union, the UGTT, have called for the state to nationalise them.

For foreign investors who have dealings with companies linked to the former regime, Hakim Ben Hammouda, a Tunisian economist who lives in Switzerland, said the unravelling would precipitate a sweeping redrawing of contracts.

It would not endanger their holdings, he said. "Most likely the partners of the past will not be the same. This is a good development for investors from the Gulf. A lot were complaining about the corruption and nepotism the Ben Ali regime was imposing on them."