By Deborah Pasmantier/ AFP
PARIS: Long feared, now despised, the wealthy clan surrounding ousted strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s wife Leila Trabelsi corruptly gorged itself on Tunisia’s riches, experts said.
“President Ben Ali’s extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption,” the US embassy in Tunis said in a June 2008 cable recently revealed by the WikiLeaks website and widely read in Tunisia.
“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,” it said.
Some observers have said the WikiLeaks cables helped trigger the revolt that drove Ben Ali from power last week after 23 years of authoritarian rule, but the vast wealth of the presidential clan was scarcely hidden beforehand.
Shopping centers, import-export firms, property development, banks, media, telecoms, Internet providers, customs duties … “the Family” was everywhere.
“The members of the family were in a predatory situation, using their power for personal profit,” explained Beatrice Hibou, author of a study: “The power of obedience: Political economy and repression in Tunisia.”
While Ben Ali has a broad network of relatives the Tunisian people’s anger has concentrated on the group around his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, her 10 brothers and sisters and dozens of nieces and nephews.
Less exposed, but still envied and hated, is the so-called “historic Clan” — sometimes elbowed aside by the Trabelsis — composed of the ex-president’s own seven brothers and sisters and their spouses.
Leila married Ben Ali in 1992. According to French writer Nicolas Beau, she spent the 1990s placing members of her “lower class and intellectually limited” family in key political and economic positions.
According to Hibou, a researcher at the National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS) in Paris, the Family used a variety of methods to build a stranglehold on Tunisian economic life.
“When there were privatizations, they would buy at a symbolic price and sell on afterwards to industrialists and businessmen. If a business worked well, they would demand a share in the capital,” she said.
“They demanded shares or commissions in foreign investments, and served as go-betweens in the award of public contracts. The Trabelsi network controlled both customs duties and smuggling,” she said.
To strengthen their network, sons of the clan married several daughters of the leading businessman Hedi Jilani. Leila also “used certain elements of the police to threaten and harass perceived rivals,” Beau alleged.
The leaked US embassy cable, citing an executive from the French bank Credit Agricole, said that Ben Ali’s son-in-law Marouane Mabrouk had taken a 17 percent stake in a bank just before it was privatized.
The US diplomat said Leila’s brother Belhassen Trabelsi was “rumored to have been involved in a wide-range of corrupt schemes from the recent Banque de Tunisie board shakeup to property expropriation and extortion of bribes.
“Belhassen Trabelsi’s holdings are extensive and include an airline, several hotels, one of Tunisia’s two private radio stations, car assembly plants, Ford distribution, a real estate development company,” he said.
“Yet, Belhassen is only one of Leila’s 10 known siblings, each with their own children,” the diplomat marveled, in the leaked cable.
Perhaps the most astonishing story in the cable — which includes chapters headed “All in the Family”, “Mob Rule” and “The Sky’s The Limit” — is of how two clan members stole a yacht from a leading French banker.
“In 2006, 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 cable recounted.
Imed was one of Ben Ali’s favorite nephews, but “behaved like a thug” and called on the police for support if threatened, said Beau, head of the French investigative website Bakchich.info.
“It was this kind of greed, incompetence and menace that exasperated the Tunisian middle class, industrialists and traders,” he said, drawing a link between corruption and Tunisia’s 30 percent youth unemployment rate.