Wife of the deposed Tunisian dictator says husband was victim of plot security officials plot
John Lichfield has been The Independent's man in Paris since 1997, covering French news. Before that, he was the paper's Foreign Editor and he has also worked in Brussels and Washington. In 1999, he was the UK press Awards Foreign Reporter of the year.
Friday 22 June 2012
The reviled wife of the deposed Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dictator says her husband was the victim of plot hatched by top security officials - not a revolution.
Leila Ben Ali makes the claim in a new book based on interviews conducted over Skype from Saudi Arabia, where she lives in exile with her husband. The unpopular former first lady, who was labelled the Queen of Carthage for her reputedly imperious conduct, suggests that the Tunisian uprising that led to her husband's ouster last year and sparked a wave of similar movements across the Arab world was a coup d'etat fomented by army and security officers with western help.
The 55 year old remains widely detested in Tunisia for her obsession with wealth and possessions. She is also alleged to have encouraged the rapacity of her family, the Trabalsi clan, who seized businesses ranging from banks to airlines, radio and television stations and large shops.
During her husband's reign, she presented herself as a liberated Arab woman and appeared only in expensive western clothes. But she conducted her Skype interviews with French journalist Yves Derai wearing a veil and sunglasses, as Saudi law demands.
Leila Ben Ali said that she believed that the Tunisian army and security services had deposed her husband, with western and especially French help. While the rest of the world viewed the uprising to be a popular revolt against the wealth of the few and the poverty of the many, Ms Ben Ali insists that it was caused by "indoctrination of the masses, the distribution of money in poor areas, the recruitment of snipers, the intensification of protests through targeted killings, the torching of homes."
She sees signs of western connivance in an "unusual number of internships" given to young Tunisians in western countries in the months before the revolt which. Their time abroad, she says, "taught them how to write blogs".
Her husband's flight from Tunis in January 2011 was, she claims, a confidence trick mounted by Ali Seriati, the head of presidential security. Their exile in Saudi Arabia would not have occurred "without Seriati's insistence," she said. "Even when we were in the air, my husband thought that he could return the following morning."
The book, "Ma Vérité" or "My Truth" has been the object of protests and mockery in France. Some Tunisians have suggested that French book shops should refuse to stock it. Pascal Clark, a well-known radio interviewer and commentator on France Inter, described it in a tweet as the "funniest book of the year".
However, Ms Ben Ali admits some responsibility - or at least that of her extended family - in her husband's downfall. "Among my own, there were some who exaggerated," she says. "Often the younger ones who freely indulged in their appetite for profits and refused to set limits… These weaknesses and errors of my family were amplified outside and used with the sole objective of bringing down the regime of Ben Ali ... We were the Achilles heel of the president."
Leila Ben Ali also has a couple of bitter passages complaining that the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, let them down despite the many gifts he received. "He never refused the products of (the Tunisian) soil that we sent to him," she says.
Ms Ben Ali says that she and her husband would willingly return to Tunisia if they could be guaranteed a fair trial. Last week a Tunisian court sentenced he husband in absentia to life imprisonment. He has already been sentenced to more than 66 years in prison on charges ranging from drug trafficking to embezzlement.
Of her life in exile in Saudi Arabia, Leila Ben Ali she that said she spends "most of the day looking after my husband and my children ... I rarely go out rarely, hardly meet anyone and I pray a lot."
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