Tunisia attempts to break the grip of 'the family'

As the ousted Tunisian President, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, goes on trial in absentia in Tunis, Patrick Cockburn reports on how he and his relatives controlled the country
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The ousted Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, on trial in absentia in Tunis, claimed yesterday that he was tricked into leaving his country in the face of widespread demonstrations and riots against him and his extended family over allegations of corruption and abuse of power.

In his first detailed account of how he hurriedly left Tunisia on 14 January for Saudi Arabia, where he is in exile after 23 years in power, Mr Ben Ali claimed he only went there to bring his family to safety after being told of an assassination plot against him by a "friendly" foreign intelligence service. He was persuaded into taking his wife and children to Jeddah but had intended to return immediately.

In a statement issued by his lawyers on the first day of his trial in Tunis for illegally possessing drugs, weapons, cash and jewellery, Mr Ben Ali denied that he had deliberately fled the country. The statement says "he boarded the plane with his family after ordering the crew to wait for him in Jeddah. But after his arrival in Jeddah, the plane returned to Tunisia, without waiting for him, contrary to his orders."

Mr Ben Ali's story shows how his former allies, such as the US, were eager to get him out of the country without a confrontation between him and the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who were demanding he step down. His flight, the first of the Arab despots in charge of police states to flee at the start of the Arab Spring, was followed by popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

The trial of Mr Ben Ali is the beginning of a process by the Tunisian government to punish those responsible for killings and torture under the old regime. It is also the start of an attempt to gain control of the 30 to 40 per cent of the Tunisian economy estimated to have fallen under the sway of Mr Ben Ali's family and that of his wife, Leila Trabelsi, whom he married in 1992.

Hatred of the Ben Ali regime was fuelled by tales of their unbridled greed and gargantuan wealth. In US embassy cables released by Wiki- Leaks, the American ambassador expressed shock at how Mr Ben Ali's extended family was a "quasi-mafia" and the "nexus of Tunisian corruption," The ambassador gives an account of having dinner at the villa of one of the Ben Ali's daughters, Nesrine and her husband, Sakhr el-Meteri, where frozen yogurt was flown in from St Tropez, and four chickens a day were fed to a pet tiger.

Not only did the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families take over profitable businesses, but they made it impossible for anybody else to do business without cutting them in for a share. One entrepreneur who went to see Mr Ben Ali with his plan to start a university was told by him "OK, but its 50:50" according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. The entrepreneur dropped his proposal.

One of the President's brothers-in-law, Belhassen Trabelsi, suggested to a car importer, who intended to import Citroë* cars, that he join him in a partnership. When the importer turned him down he was promptly subjected to 17 tax inspections and his cars were stopped at customs for having 10 seats. "There is no such thing as a 10-seat car," the importer told the newspaper.

Mr Ben Ali, who came to power in a coup in 1987, ran a tightly controlled police state similar to that in other parts of the Arab world. As elsewhere, the ruling family cherry-picked the most profitable enterprises and bought up privatised businesses at rock bottom prices. For instance Mr Trabelsi's business interests included the Bank of Tunisia, Karthago Airlines, radio and television companies, cement, a sugar refinery and a Ford dealership.

Mr Ben Ali, born in 1936, had made his career in the Tunisian military and was a graduate of American and French military training schools. In Tunisia he was head of national security from 1977 and was well placed to take over from his ageing predecessor President Habib Bourguiba

He always revelled in the costly trappings of office including a $250m Airbus for state visits. He ignored the way in which the pervasive corruption and creeping economic domination of the ruling families fuelled furious resentment among all classes of Tunisians. This exploded last December after a 26-year-old street vendor burnt himself to death when his vegetable cart was confiscated by the police because he did not have the required licence. Mr Ali is likely to face a further trial by military tribunal, the date for which has not been set, at which he will be charged with ordering the police to open fire on protesters, hundreds of whom were killed.

Tunisia was typical of the era of Arab police states which developed from the 1970s and were very similar, regardless of whether or not they were republics or monarchies. Absolute power was held through multi-layered security agencies, tight censorship and control of information and communications, and state domination of all independent organisations such as trade unions and political parties. The wave of privatisations of public property became plundering expeditions for predatory ruling families.

In Tunisia popular loathing for Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser, was particularly acute. No part of the economy was immune from seizure or interference by the ruling families. They took over banks, insurance companies, tourist venture, property, distribution and agencies of big foreign firms. As Mr Ben Ali was being toppled, the cars and villas of his relatives and in-laws were ransacked by angry crowds. It is not known how much of their assets had been moved abroad.

Such was the grip of "The Family" on the economy that government officials say they are moving cautiously in dealing with their many businesses and, instead of closing them down, the courts have appointed managers. Some 33 Ben Ali and Trabelse family members were detained after the uprising and the Tunisian government has asked for the arrest of Mr Ben Ali and others who fled abroad.