In Tunisia, luxurious lifestyles of a corrupt government

By Sudarsan Raghavan
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.

"The excesses of the Ben Ali family are growing," warned Godec.

Unrestrained excess

This whitewashed resort town was an epicenter of such excesses. In interviews, residents spoke of Ben Ali relatives throwing lavish parties and driving Ferraris and other luxury cars.

Others described how relatives refused to pay to enter nightclubs or for restaurant bills. In one story circulating around town, a Trabelsi relative started a brawl in a nightclub. The next morning, the policemen who arrested him were fired.

Neighbors of a villa belonging to Leila Trabelsi's brother, Belhassen, said they once received his electricity bill by mistake. The bill for that huge house? Zero dinars.

According to another cable, Godec witnessed a night of excess at Materi's spacious house nestled along a public beach in Hammamet. The house was filled with ancient artifacts, including Roman columns, frescoes and a lion's head from which water poured into the pool, Godec wrote.

In the compound, Materi kept a large tiger in a cage. Godec wrote that the scene reminded him of Saddam Hussein's son Uday's lion cage in Baghdad.

That night they feasted on a lavish dinner of a dozen dishes; dessert included ice cream and frozen yogurt flown in from Saint Tropez on Materi's private jet. During dinner, Materi expressed interest in owning a McDonald's franchise in Tunisia.

"Throughout the evening, El Materi often struck the Ambassador as demanding, vain and difficult. He is clearly aware of his wealth and power, and his actions reflected little finesse," the cable read. "He repeatedly pointed out the lovely view from his home and frequently corrected his staff, issued orders and barked reprimands."

Some residents said that after Ben Ali fled on Jan. 14, mobs entered Materi's house. Among their first acts: They killed the tiger.

'Like a piece of the Berlin Wall'

Despite the stories and the rumors, most residents did not know how lavishly Ben Ali's family lived. So on a recent day at the ransacked mansion of Ben Ali's nephew, Kais Ben Ali, the gasps were audible.

"Unbelievable," said Fathi Gdara, a plumber, as he entered the large bedroom with a view of the pool and the Mediterranean. He shook his head, then added: "It's the money of the people."

Some of the visitors picked up a piece of glass or marble to keep.

"It's a souvenir to remind us the dark days are over," said Sadok Khayati. "For us, it's like a piece of the Berlin Wall."

Fawzia Ouji came with her 7-year-old daughter, Maram. They walked up the spiral staircase, its railing ripped out, and went from room to room. Ouji, too, picked up a piece of marble.

When they get home, she said, she will tell her daughter "that the people were blind, that we didn't know the real situation. She has to learn from this, to have an idea about the past in order to avoid it again in the future."

As they walked down the staircase, they passed another piece of graffiti on the wall. "Power to the People," it read.

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