Tue January 18, 2011

Tunisians Loot Lavish Homes Of Former Ruling Clan

Tunisia's new interim government was on shaky ground Tuesday, as four of the Cabinet ministers resigned and others threatened to do so in protest over the continued presence in the government of allies of ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisians say they want a complete break with their former autocratic ruler, whom they despise for many reasons. Tunisians say the president, and in particular his wife and her family, abused power and enriched themselves at the expense of the Tunisian people.

Portrait Of Excessive Decadence

Four days after the overthrow of Tunisia's dictator, looters have ransacked a whitewashed villa in an upscale suburban neighborhood of Tunis called La Marsa.

Even though there's nothing more to take away, hundreds of people still come every day to visit the wrecked shell. The house belonged to businessman Moaz Trabelsi, one of the 10 brothers of the president's wife, Leila Trabelsi. And it's a scene that is playing out across the country at homes owned by the family.

Mounir Khelifa is an English professor at the University of Tunis. Walking through one of the pillaged mansions of the Ben Ali-Trabelsi clan, he points out a burned-out Porsche Cayenne and calls the mansion a "thief's" or "robber's" house.

The swimming pool has a mattress floating in it. Broken furniture and women's magazines litter the yard. Tunisian families are walking through the villa's empty, trash-strewn rooms as if it were a real estate open house.

Khelifa says Tunisians despise the president they deposed, but they hate his wife even more. The 55-year-old former hairdresser is 74-year-old Ben Ali's second wife. Like the tentacles of an octopus, the Trabelsi clan wrapped itself around almost every sector of the country's economy, say Tunisans. They controlled the car dealerships, the banks, the airlines, the media and the major retailers. Amel Jertila, a 37-year-old who started her own company, says doing business in Tunisia was hell.

"It was terrible. And you are scared all the time. What if I cross them one day in my life, what will happen to me? After years of work, we are scared of phantoms that are called Trabelsi and Ben Ali," she says.

Cables from the U.S. ambassador in Tunisia that surfaced in WikiLeaks paint a picture of a family that lived in excessive decadence, while many Tunisians lived below the poverty level. Invited to dinner at the villa of Ben Ali's favorite son-in-law, the ambassador described ice cream imported from St. Tropez on a private jet and a pet tiger in a cage on the compound.

'Giants With Clay Feet'

Just three days before the final wave of protests that brought Ben Ali down, writer Abdelaziz Belkhodja took the risk of distributing documents showing the extent of what he calls the mafiosa activity of the president, his wife and her family.

"It reached unimaginable proportions. These people wanted to take over the country. That's why they took the banks and the media. She appointed the ministers, because after his death, she wanted to keep control of the country," Belkhodja says.

Belkhodja estimates that in their two decades in power, Ben Ali and his extended family stole about $20 billion -- twice Tunisia's national budget.

At another magnificent villa -- this one on a hillside -- is the home of a simple primary school teacher whose name happens to be Adel Trabelsi.

Inside the house, Tunisians are ripping out wiring and trying to detach some electric blinds from the windows. Everyone is smiling. Khelifa, the English professor, says no one in their wildest dreams would have imagined such a sudden and ignominious collapse of the Ben Ali-Trabelsi family.

"We suspected that tyrannical power is weak. But to this extent, this kind of weakness is just amazing," Khelifa says. "I think if there is one lesson to be learned, it's precisely that dictatorships, they're giants with feet of clay." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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