x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Hatred against one family brought Tunisia to revolution

The excesses of Leila Ben Ali, wife of the now-ousted Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and the corruption involving her family, the Trabelsis, saw her likened to Imelda Marcos, and even Lady Macbeth as the anger it all generated in Tunisians helped power a popular uprising.

YASMINE HAMMAMET // In three years Mohamed Bakari, a restaurateur in the exclusive beachside community of Yasmine Hammamet, never saw his neighbour, Leila Trabelsi.

"We saw only the security details, and the cars coming and going," he said.

Now Mr Bakari's neighbour is gone apparently for good, exiled along with her husband, the ousted former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, to the delight of Tunisians.

A leaked 2008 diplomatic cable by the US ambassador at the time tells why: "Along with the numerous allegations of Trabelsi corruption are often barbs about their lack of education, low social status and conspicuous consumption."

Commonly known by her maiden name, Mrs Trabelsi and her clan accumulated billions of dollars, allegedly intimidating businessmen, manipulating government and even stealing a yacht.

Mr Bakari was sitting in his darkened restaurant one afternoon in late January, two weeks after the revolution that ousted Mr Ben Ali. Down the path stood Mrs Trabelsi's deserted holiday house, a white modernist creation of interlocking cubes. The community's jet-set inhabitants, Tunisian and foreign, had mostly cleared out.

But even the wealthy cheered the revolution that dislodged Mr Ben Ali and his family, widely feared and loathed for corruption and abuse of power. Perhaps none was more hated than Mrs Trabelsi, often likened to Imelda Marcos for her conspicuous consumption and to Lady Macbeth for her role in her husband's downfall.

Mr Ben Ali took power in 1987 in a coup. In 1992 he married Mrs Trabelsi, a former hairdresser more than 20 years his junior.

As president, he liberalised Tunisia's economy while strengthening its already robust security apparatus, creating an environment for Mrs Trabelsi and her clan to gain control of major businesses with the backing of the state.

One reported trick was to privatise state-owned companies, buy them cheaply, then sell them at a huge profit and demand a share of earnings from the buyers if they proved successful. Another was to demand commissions on foreign investments in Tunisia.

Few business deals in the country were possible without members of "the family" being involved, according to United States diplomatic cables leaked last year by Wikileaks.

In 2004 the World Bank said that Tunisia's annual growth rate of 4 to 5 per cent might have been 6 to 7 per cent were it not for corruption.

"People were afraid to say no to the Trabelsis," said Mr Bakari. "You'd hear stories about how they pressured people."

One person who felt Mrs Trabelsi's wrath was Yasser Arafat's widow, Suha Arafat, ejected from Tunisia and stripped of her newly acquired Tunisian citizenship after the two women argued over their jointly owned Carthage International School.

Meanwhile, Mrs Trabelsi was firming up a power base within her husband's regime. According to some reports, she ordered his advisers to filter news of what was happening in Tunisia through her.

The couple also scored a coup when their daughter Nesrine married Sakhr El Materi, the scion of a wealthy family who was afterward seen as a potential heir to Mr Ben Ali.

Mr El Materi's tastes reportedly matched those of his new in-laws, as described in a cable by the former American ambassador, Robert F Godec.

In July 2009, Mr Godec attended a banquet at Mr El Materi's seaside lair in Hammamet, an upmarket resort town a few kilometres north of Yasmine Hammamet. There were Roman columns and frescoes in the garden that Mr El Materi insisted were genuine, a pet tiger named Pasha in a cage, and obscene amounts of food.

For dessert, there were ice cream, frozen yogurt, blueberries, raspberries and chocolate cake brought by Mr Materi and his wife from St Tropez in their private plane.

Mr Godec described his host as at turns "difficult and kind". Mr El Materi spoke passionately of Islam, but also barked orders at his servants and commented repeatedly on his villa's gorgeous view.

"The opulence with which El Materi and Nesrine live and their behaviour make clear why they and other members of Ben Ali's family are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians," wrote Mr Godec. "The excesses of the Ben Ali family are growing."

When revolution finally came to Tunisia, it was not an affair of poor against rich, nor of left against right, nor of secular against pious. It was simply everyone against Mr Ben Ali, his family and his regime.

Anti-government protests that began over unemployment spiralled into calls for Mr Ben Ali to step down. Amid the jeers and placards were condemnations of the Trabelsis - in particular Mrs Trabelsi, widely seen as queen bee in a hive of corruption.

"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," Mr Godec wrote.

Mr Ben Ali fled Tunisia by jet late on January 14, taking refuge in Saudi Arabia.

Mrs Trabelsi was rumoured to have gone to Dubai - she is said to have been a frequent shopper there - several days earlier as her family's position grew more precarious.

Mr El Materi and his wife also skipped the country ahead of Mr Ben Ali and briefly holed up in a hotel at Disneyland Paris where the size and glitz of their entourage garnered a lot of attention. While Mr Ben Ali remains in Saudi Arabia, his family's whereabouts are largely a mystery.

In January, Tunisia's interim government said that 33 relatives of the former president had been arrested. Tunisian authorities have issued international arrest warrants for others.

Tunisia is also pressing Canada to extradite Belhassen Trabelsi, one of Mrs Trabelsi's 10 siblings, and freeze his Canadian assets. Switzerland and the European Union have already seized assets belonging to Mr Ben Ali and his relatives.

The future of the family's Tunisian holdings is unclear. For now, angry Tunisians have dealt with a number of the opulent residences that came to symbolise their greed.

The beachfront villa in Hammamet of Kais Ben Ali, a nephew of the former president, was burned and looted in January, and the charred walls were etched with graffiti, some revolutionary, some simply vulgar.

Two weeks later, looters broke into the nearby house of Belhassen Trabelsi, wresting out its crystal chandeliers, its baby palms, even its electrical fixtures. Mr El Materi's house was also ransacked; a video posted on YouTube purported to show Pasha the tiger moments after his throat was slit.

However, Mrs Trabelsi's house at Yasmine Hammamet was spared.

"There were demonstrations out in the main road, but the crowd never entered," said Mr Bakari. "People understand that damaging the tourism industry damages Tunisia as a whole."

While Tunisians are thrilled to be rid of Mr Ben Ali's regime, the upheaval has devastated the tourism industry.

In Yasmine Hammamet, Mr Bakari's restaurant was struggling. Each day the waiters laid out the napkins and cutlery, and there they remained untouched until nightfall. But initially there had been jubilation.

"Even wealthy people backed the revolution because they were happy to see the end of dictatorship," he said. "And everyone here had trouble with the Trabelsis."

jthorne@thentional.ae