Wed, Jan 19, 2011 - Page 6 News List

Tunisians hail fall of former leader’s corrupt family


Tunisians couldn’t stand her even more than they couldn’t stand him.

The end of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s iron-fisted, 23-year rule brought joy to many ordinary people in this North African nation — and they were especially elated at the prospect of life without his wife and her rapacious family.

The clan of former first lady Leila Trabelsi, a one-time hairdresser who rose to become thye country’s most influential woman, was widely despised as the ultimate symbol of corruption and excess.

Leila and her 10 siblings are said to have operated like a mafia, extorting money from shop owners, demanding a stake in businesses large and small and divvying up plum concessions among themselves.

Their control over the economy was vast. The Trabelsi and Ben Ali’s own families were said to have a stake in Tunisian banks and airlines, car dealerships, Internet providers, radio and television stations, industry and big retailers.

And when mass protests forced Ben Ali to flee on Friday to Saudi Arabia, his people’s pent-up rage was directed more at Leila’s side of the family than at her husband and his authoritarian regime.

Retribution was swift. Within a day of Ben Ali’s departure, many of the sumptuous villas and businesses belonging to the Trabelsis were pillaged and burned, and some reports said one prominent family member was killed by an angry mob. A Tunis Air pilot who refused to take off with five fleeing family members on board has become a national hero.

A branch of the Zeitouna bank in Tunis founded by Ben Ali’s son-in-law was torched, as were vehicles made by the car brands he distributed, including Fiat and Porsche.

“They [the Trabelsis] are thieves, tricksters and even killers,” Tunis resident Mantasser Ben Mabrouk said. “Their only goal was to make money in whatever way they could.”

His friend Mohamed Gaddahi agreed, laying — as many here do — much of the blame for the regime’s abuses squarely on the Trabelsis.

“The president did lots of good, but the family did lots of harm to Tunisia,” Gaddahi said.

US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks appear to shore up that conclusion. A June 2008 cable from the US embassy in Tunis describes a report by anti-corruption group Transparency International as saying: “Whether it’s cash, services, land, property ... President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants.”

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