x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

What WikiLeaks revealed about Leila Ben Ali's excesses in Tunisia

Cables under the name of Robert Godec, the US ambassador to Tunisia from 2006 to 2009, released by WikiLeaks give a picture of the behaviour of the Tunisian president's wife. Leila Ben Ali, and her family, the Trabelsis, that made them hated in Tunisia.

Some have called the revolt in Tunisia the "first WikiLeaks revolution" because the documents were released in December when Tunisians were protesting. The US diplomatic cables were filled with details about the corruption and extravagance of the Ben Ali family.

Here are excerpts from three cables under the name of Robert Godec, the US ambassador to Tunisia from 2006 to 2009. One was written in June 2008; the other two in July 2009.

In the 2008 cable, he headlined topics: "Summary," "The sky's the limit," "All in the family," "Yacht wanted," "Show me your money," "Mob rule?" and so on.

In the July 27, 2009 cable, he described a lavish dinner at the beachfront house of Mr Ben Ali's daughter and son-in-law.

June 23, 2008 cable

'Summary'

"Corruption in Tunisia is getting worse. Whether it's cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali's family is rumoured to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants."

'All in the family'

"President Ben Ali's extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption. Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of 'the family' is enough to indicate which family you mean. … 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."

'This land is your land, this land is my land'

"Construction on an enormous and garish mansion has been underway next to the ambassador's residence for the past year. Multiple sources have told us that the home is that of Sakhr Materi, President Ben Ali's son-in-law and owner of Zitouna Radio. This prime real estate was reportedly expropriated from its owner by the GOT [Government of Tunisia] for use by the water authority, then later granted to Materi for private use."

'Yacht wanted'

"Imed and Moaz Trabelsi, Ben Ali's nephews, are reported to have stolen the yacht of a well-connected French businessman, Bruno Roger, chairman of Lazard Paris. The theft, widely reported in the French press, came to light when the yacht, freshly painted to cover distinguishing characteristics, appeared in the Sidi Bou Said harbor."

'Show me your money'

"Tunisia's financial sector remains plagued by serious allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement. Tunisian business people joke that the most important relationship you can have is with your banker, reflecting the importance of personal connections rather than a solid business plan in securing financing."

'Mob rule?'

"The numerous stories of familial corruption are certainly galling to many Tunisians, but beyond the rumors of money-grabbing is a frustration that the well-connected can live outside the law. One Tunisian lamented that Tunisia was no longer a police state, it had become a state run by the mafia. 'Even the police report to the Family!' he exclaimed."

'Comment'

"Corruption is the elephant in the room; it is the problem everyone knows about, but no one can publicly acknowledge."

July 17, 2009 Cable

'Summary'

"By many measures, Tunisia should be a close US ally. But it is not … Compounding the problems, the GOT brooks no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Instead, it seeks to impose ever greater control, often using the police. The result: Tunisia is troubled and our relations are too."

'The problem: a sclerotic regime and growing corruption'

"Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, First Lady Leila Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her; even those close to the government express dismay at her reported behavior. Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia's high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime's long-term stability are increasing."

July 27, 2009

'El Materi unplugged: home/personal life'

"El Materi has a large tiger [Pasha] on his compound, living in a cage. He acquired it when it was a few weeks old. The tiger consumes four chickens a day. [Comment: the situation reminded the ambassador of Uday Hussein's lion cage in Baghdad.] El Materi had staff everywhere. There were at least a dozen people, including a butler from Bangladesh and a nanny from South Africa." [NB. This is extraordinarily rare in Tunisia, and very expensive.]

'Comment'

"The opulence with which al-Materi and Nesrine live and their behavior make clear why they and other members of Ben Ali's family are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians. The excesses of the Ben Ali family are growing."