In Tunisia, luxurious lifestyles of a corrupt government

After forcing a corrupt government from power, Tunisians flock to a ransacked Mediterranean mansion to see the luxurious lifestyle of their former elites.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 28, 2011; 3:09 PM

HAMMAMET, TUNISIA - They arrive every day at this white mansion overlooking the Mediterranean, parents with their children, old men with canes, young men in leather jackets, among the many Tunisians on a pilgrimage to vent their anger at a corrupt government.

It's been two weeks since mobs overran this opulent house, amid protests that have spread across the Arab world. Neighbors said it was occupied by a nephew of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Today, the infinity pool is filled with debris. The 30-foot floor-to-ceiling windows are shattered. The smell of charred wood wafts through the air as scores of visitors see the luxurious lifestyles of their former elites for the first time.

"The smell of fire is also the smell of freedom and happiness," declared Sami Soukah, a retired driver, as he looked up at the carcass of a crystal chandelier. "They stole the people's money. We are not sorry that this happened."

No matter what happens next in this tense North African nation - free and fair elections? Military rule? Dictatorship or democracy? - Tunisians appear certain they have rid themselves of Ben Ali and his family. Just as high unemployment and low wages triggered their rebellion, many say, so too did the government's blatant corruption and excesses. Tunisia's government issued an international arrest warrant for Ben Ali and his family this week, asking Interpol to apprehend them on allegations of theft and taking money out of the country illegally.

The graffiti scrawled on the walls of the mansion spoke the fury of a long neglected population.

"The Rich got Richer. The Poor got Poorer," someone wrote on a wall in a marble-tiled bedroom, which once had a Jacuzzi.

"You killed the people, Ben Ali," someone else wrote in the hallway overlooking the landscaped garden, with palm trees and a fountain.

During his 23-year rule, Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, were often referred to as the "Ceausescus," the Romanian dictator and his wife who were executed as their repressive and corrupt regime collapsed. The Ben Ali and Trabelsi families controlled a vast number of companies and real estate, sometimes taken by force. Even distant relatives seemed above the law.

Tunisia was their personal treasure chest. On the Internet, rumors abounded of Leila Trabelsi trying to sell a Tunisian island, or seeking to shut down a highly regarded private school so that she could promote her own school. Ben Ali's son-in-law, Mohammad Sakher el-Materi, was said to own many of the nation's luxury car dealerships, among other lucrative businesses.

The family got whatever it coveted - cash, services, land, even a yacht that someone else owned - according to the anti-corruption watchdog group Transparency International and U.S. Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks last year.

In a cable from 2009, then-U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec noted that members of Ben Ali's family "are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians" because of their extravagant lifestyles.

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