Tunisia's Ben Ali and Family Ran a 'Mafia State'

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Alex Majoli / Magnum for Newsweek

At first, the family of Tunisia’s toppled president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, refused to accept that their decades of profiteering and profligacy had come to an end. As rioting killed scores of people in Tunisia’s streets, Ben Ali’s daughter and her husband holed up in the luxury suites of the Castle Club at Disneyland Paris. Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, took her personal jet from Tunisia—her “shopping plane,” as protesters called it—and grabbed as much mad money as she could get her hands on. By some accounts, that included a ton and a half of gold from the nation’s central bank. Tunisia’s first family had such a reputation for ruthless extravagance that even after the bank denied the story, the street continued to believe it. A new rallying cry broke out: “Hang them all—but let’s get our gold back first!”

Looters didn’t wait. At one palatial villa after another, they carried away anything of value. Last week, only days after Ben Ali and his wife fled to exile in Saudi Arabia, their opulent homes and hideaways in Tunisia had been stripped bare. In living rooms and bedrooms with commanding views of the sun-flecked Mediterranean, shattered glass crunched underfoot. The incinerated carcasses of a Mercedes and an SUV blocked the road to the house of one of Trabelsi’s nephews. Men carrying machetes, claiming they were guards, laughed as they described piles of pornography that had been carted away. At the home of Leila’s sister Jalila, empty boxes from Swarovski, Chanel, and Prada littered the rooms. At another nephew’s villa, as a kind of monument to indolence, was an elevator that went up only one floor. In all of the houses, the smell of burned plastic hung in the air, mingled with the ammonia scent left by rioters who had urinated on the wreckage.

Visions of transformation flashed across the region via cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, and satellite TV. For a moment, at least, people in all corners of the stagnating Arab world dared to hope that the triumph of the Tunisian street might do for them what the fall of the Berlin Wall did for the people of the decaying Soviet empire. A poll of readers by the Arabic-language news site Elaph showed that 86 percent wanted the popular movement in Tunisia to spread beyond the country’s borders.

But is Tunisia the first regime to fall, or is it only another false hope? “A lot of people in the Arab world have Tunisia envy right now,” says Fouad Ajami of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. They may have forgotten the similar burst of enthusiasm that swept the region in 2009, when millions of protesters took to Iran’s streets after the disputed presidential election there. That dream evaporated as soon as Tehran’s thugs crushed the uprising. Right now it’s impossible to predict with certainty where Tunisia is headed—whether toward more democracy, a new dictatorship, perhaps even an Islamist political revival in what has been the Arab world’s most militantly secular state. “There’s a delicate space between the autocrats and the theocrats,” says Ajami. “The question is whether people will have Tunisia envy in a month.”

The fall of Ben Ali has accomplished one thing nonetheless: it has exposed the corrupt common denominator of every regime in the Arab world. They are all, in effect, mafia states—entire nations run by families for their own benefit. Whether they call themselves republics or monarchies, whether they are allied to the United States or opposed to it, are on the list of states supporting terrorism or fighting it, have made peace with Israel or not, they are all family businesses. Whether they claim to be secular or follow Sharia or try to chart a course in between, their governance has less in common with the Magna Carta than it does with La Cosa Nostra.

In lands where the building block of society is not the individual but clans and tribes, government has always tended to be a matter of someone else’s family telling your family what to do. But in this region, where at least half the population is now under the age of 30, is more educated than any previous generation, and is more frustrated than ever before, the traditional model just doesn’t deliver enough hope for the future. The riots that brought down Ben Ali began when police seized a young fruit vendor’s cart, and he burned himself to death. He was scarcely alone in his sense of desperation: in only the past week, at least 10 other people have set themselves ablaze in Egypt, Algeria, and even Mauritania. Will that wave of self-immolations provoke new uprisings? “Revolutions are ‘inevitable’ only in hindsight,” cautions Ajami. As recently as a month ago, nobody would have predicted that Ben Ali would be first to fall.

As Tunisia’s intelligence chief in the 1980s, Ben Ali built close ties to the CIA, and for decades Washington was happy to make excuses for him. In 1987 he staged a bloodless coup against the doddering president, Habib Bourguiba, who more than three decades earlier had become the father of modern Tunisia. Ben Ali cast himself as a bulwark against militant Islam, and after 9/11 became one of the Bush administration’s most reliable allies in the Global War on Terror. He also played by the economic rules of the International Monetary Fund, embraced globalization, and was rewarded with money and praise for his progressive policies. Diplomats in Tunis told NEWSWEEK in 2003 that Tunisia was “a country that works”—a relatively benign regime where criticism of the leader might bring torture and jail, but probably not death. It was “a soft dictatorship,” the diplomats said, “more like Singapore or South Korea in the 1980s than like some other Arab countries today.” But all the while, Ben Ali and his wife, along with several members of her family, were living out the starring roles in a real-life gangster movie.

Leila Trabelsi, like many another mob girlfriend, came from a humble background: one of 11 children of a Tunis fruit-and-nut peddler. A beautiful brunette, she was working as a hairdresser when she met Ben Ali, and before he became president (or even divorced his first wife, for that matter), she had borne him their first child. The stolid Ben Ali, who had developed quiet, deliberate, ruthless ways in the intelligence services, listened to only a handful of advisers, but Trabelsi’s voice grew in importance. “She was not as stupid as people thought,” says a senior Western diplomat in Tunis. In recent years there was frequent speculation that Ben Ali, 74, was grooming the 53-year-old Trabelsi as his successor. Or perhaps that she was grooming herself. “The hairdresser would be monarch,” says Ajami.

As her influence grew, so did that of her siblings and nephews, who shared little of Ben Ali’s sense of patriarchal discretion. In 2006, for instance, a $3 million luxury yacht called the Beru Ma disappeared off the coast of Corsica. A few weeks later, the vessel cruised into the Tunisian port of Sidi Bou Said with a fresh coat of paint and a new set of registration papers. The man reportedly behind the caper was Leila’s nephew Imed Trabelsi, whose stocky frame and slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair were worthy of a lieutenant in the Soprano family.

Unfortunately for Imed, who had allegedly paid a Frenchman $100,000 to hijack the yacht, its rightful owner was Bruno Roger, the chairman of the investment bank Lazard Frères and a close friend of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The theft could have easily led to a diplomatic row, but the French, like the Americans, thought Ben Ali was a useful ally. They didn’t want to insult his family. The yacht was returned quickly but quietly. Imed and his brother Moez landed on an Interpol wanted list, nothing more. The episode was hardly the end of Imed’s storied career in the rackets.

Ben Ali’s relatives controlled nearly every aspect of the Tunisian economy, from banks and car dealerships to real estate and grocery stores. “Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of ‘the Family’ is enough to indicate which family you mean,” then–U.S. ambassador Robert Godec wrote in a 2008 cable that was recently published by WikiLeaks.

“The Family” was in fact two families, and, just like the mafia, they divided their turf. The Ben Alis controlled the central coast region while the Trabelsis ran the Greater Tunis area. The family members, particularly the nouveau riche Trabelsis, cruised around Tunis in the latest-model Porsches and Benzes, built extravagant seaside mansions, and threw lavish parties. Ambassador Godec wrote about a dinner with Ben Ali’s son-in-law Sakher al-Materi at a house decorated with ancient Roman columns and frescoes. Ice cream and frozen yogurt were flown in from St-Tropez for the dinner. And for amusement Materi had a pet tiger named Pasha he kept in a cage in the house. “Their home in Hammamet was impressive,” Godec wrote. “With the tiger adding to the impression of ‘over the top.’?”

Even in this motley clan, the “yachtjacker” Imed stood out. He ordered suits from Italy and had a taste for expensive cigars and French wine. He often threw extravagant parties at his house or a restaurant called La Petite Etoile in the Tunis suburb of La Goulette, where he had himself made mayor, and he surrounded himself with foreign dignitaries, politicians, and artists. Last July, Imed organized a concert featuring Italian opera singer Giovanna Nocetti at Karraka, a 16th-century fortress. “He thinks he’s the Godfather,” says Ahmed, 30, an IT consultant who occasionally worked for Imed and asks that only his first name be used. “He quoted from the movies all the time.” Imed’s favorite line was from The Godfather: Part III—“Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”

Imed is widely believed to have funded his extravagant lifestyle through a standard mob tactic: the shakedown. He had set up Noor, a charitable foundation that claimed to give medical aid to poor children, but according to a prominent businessman in La Goulette who asked not to be identified at this volatile moment, it was only a front to strong-arm wealthy entrepreneurs. “Groups of men would come around and say, ‘Imed sent us to collect cash for Noor,’?” says the businessman. “But the money was for Imed. In Arabic, Noor means ‘light,’ but this was very dark.” Along with his shady dealings, Imed also ran seemingly legit businesses. (Godec singled him out as one of the country’s most important “economic actors.”) One of his recent schemes was a plan to raze the old market in La Goulette to make way for a shopping mall, which upset many residents. “Imed was a piece of s--t,” says the businessman, comparing him to Saddam Hussein’s viciously deranged sons, Uday and Qusay. “The worst.”

Imed reportedly was stabbed to death at the Tunis airport on Jan. 14, as the Ben Ali regime collapsed, but no Tunisian officials have stepped forward to confirm the attack.

Only the day before, secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered an unusually impassioned speech in Qatar. “People have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order,” she said, calling special attention to a member of the audience “whose work on human rights and democracy in Tunisia I admire.” Then, with unusual vehemence, Clinton warned that “in too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”

The Obama administration was never especially comfortable with the Tunisian dictator and his clan. Diplomatic traffic had been amassing evidence against them even before Obama came to office, and when Ben Ali had himself reelected for the fourth time in October 2009, with 89.6 percent of the vote, Obama was among the world leaders who pointedly failed to send a note of congratulations. And when WikiLeaks released the Godec cables this past December, they didn’t say much about Ben Ali’s conduct that was news to Tunisians—but the tone of the traffic suggested that Washington wouldn’t be too sorry to see the last of him. Nevertheless, Obama had also made it clear from the start that he had no intention of taking on George W. Bush’s role as the apostle of democracy in the Arab world. Too many democratic experiments there—in the Palestinian territories, in Lebanon, in Iraq—had become too problematic.

Now Tunisia is forcing him to confront the question. “This is a clarifying moment for the Obama presidency,” says Ajami, who was a friend and adviser to Bush. It may be no use for Washington to proselytize for democracy in the Arab countries, but passive acceptance of mafia states is not a long-term option either. Still, most of them are not going to change on their own. Can the United States make them offers they can’t refuse? The short answer is probably not. That’s something only their own people can do. But sometimes, as in Tunisia, the people can surprise us all.

With Mike Elkin in Tunis and Mandi Fahmy in Cairo