TUNIS, Tunisia — A year after Tunisia’s president fled a revolution fueled in part by his government’s corruption, huge amounts of the money controlled and invested by his family and allies remain out of the reach of the country’s people and new government.
Estimates of cash, equities and property belonging to Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his allies range up to billions of dollars. Some of the money remains outside the country, locked in bank accounts or investments in 12 nations, including Britain, the United States and France, where they are being pursued by a top lawyer.
Assets inside the country are in the hands of the judiciary, the Ministry of State Property or the Finance Ministry, with a novice government uncertain what to do with them and worried that any dramatic changes could damage an already fragile economy.
Officials concede that so far not a penny of assets stashed abroad by Ben Ali or his entourage has reached public coffers and that not a single company in Tunisia has been sold off.
“There’s a process to help identify and recover the assets, and we have gone a long way in putting in place a process,” said Mustapha Kamal Nabli, governor of the central bank. “But it takes a lot of time, much more time than what people would like to see.”
One of the causes of the revolution was the “humiliation” people felt over the accumulation of wealth by some in the country because of their position, Nabli said. “Correcting that, and showing that people cannot get away with that, is extremely important in terms of the moral dimension.”
Tunisians also worry that failing to fully address the corruption of the government and recover assets is a recipe for discontent.
“The consequence of corruption is poverty, is delinquency,” said Charafeddine Elkellil, a lawyer who is pursuing corrupt officials on a voluntary basis. “The administration has collapsed because of corruption. It is the central crime, because you have a lot of crimes emerging from it.”
Tunisia’s experience offers lessons for other Middle Eastern and North African nations undergoing or facing transitions from autocracy to pluralism. Across the region, autocratic leaders, their families and acolytes formed corrupt elites and fueled perceptions of injustice and cronyism that sparked revolutionary movements.
Ben Ali and the family of his wife, Leila Trabelsi, used their connections to gain control of lucrative banks such as Zitouna, as well as car dealerships, media outlets and prime real estate. One of Ben Ali’s sons-in-law owned a majority stake in Orange, the local affiliate of France Telecom, while another had a stake in Carrefour supermarkets.
The assets of 110 members of Ben Ali’s entourage had already been seized and “dozens” had been convicted, Nabli said. But in many cases, those who allegedly benefited from the corruption remain at large.
Ben Ali is contesting the seizure of his Tunisian property. On Friday, the eve of the revolution’s anniversary, his attorney, Akram Azoury, issued a statement condemning the “illegal actions of the Tunisian authorities who have confiscated all the fixed and moveable assets of president Ben Ali.” He said that the former president would lodge a complaint against the Tunisian government with the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.
Last year some lawyers calling themselves the Group of 25 began filing suits against the alleged beneficiaries of the Ben Ali era. They created a massive chart, drawing lines between powerful individuals in government, business and Ben Ali’s political party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally, or RCD.
Much of the documentary evidence of corruption was destroyed in the days after the revolution. But activists and officials recovered some, including photocopies of checks and balance sheets, showing how Tunisian taxpayers’ money from state-owned operations such as the post office or Tunis Air was diverted into RCD coffers controlled by Ben Ali’s allies.
Thanks to the efforts of the Group of 25, all of whom work voluntarily, more than five dozen suspects have been barred from leaving the country, while 17 face specific charges and three are in prison. But the group is not satisfied.
“We expected the [transitional] government to go after them, but they didn’t,” said Amor Safraoui, leader of the group. “So we decided to go after the untouchables. At first we did it just to show that it was possible to prosecute the people. Then it became more serious.”
The transitional government, which included former government figures, may have felt it did not have the mandate or wanted to protect its own, some observers said. But critics say that even the subsequent democratically elected government led by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, which is struggling to balance the stability demanded by investors with the accountability demanded by activists and victims of the former government, may worry about alienating constituencies it depends on.
“It’s very difficult to find the money,” said Imen Bejaoui, an anti-corruption lawyer. “With the transitional government, there wasn’t the political will. With this government there isn’t the will, either. The people who are in the government now don’t know anything about the system because they were in prison or abroad.”
Legal experts say the stalled effort to pursue any more than a couple of hundred cases inside the country may be hampering the attempt to identify and recover funds stashed in 200 suspect bank accounts and companies around the world, which Tunis must prove were the product of ill-gotten gains.
“The burden of proof is on the government,” said Mark Pieth, a professor of criminal international law in Basel and chairman of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s anti-bribery team. “The problem is that you need to have proof that the money was illegally obtained.”
To recover the funds, the government has hired Enrico Monfrini, a Swiss attorney who specializes in finding illicit assets of dictators. So far less than $100 million has been identified in a Swiss account. “We think there is much more than that, but we just don’t know,” Nabli said.
To avoid the painstaking process of proving to foreign courts that specific funds were ill-gotten, Tunisia could try to show that the entire government was a corrupt enterprise, Pieth said. But that route would also require far more sweeping prosecutions at home.
“The quality of the convictions is linked to the ability of the government to recover,” said Amir Shaikh, an attorney at the legal support facility of the African Development Bank, which is aiding Tunisia in its asset-recovery efforts. “A lot of courts, especially Western courts, will want to see the dots connected.”
Tunisians are watching closely how the Islamist Ennahda party, repressed under Ben Ali, will manage the companies taken over and the related corruption cases. Although the businesses were owned and run by government figures, the employees themselves were blameless and hard-working, many say.
“You have a lot of money, billions of dinars, and tens of thousands of jobs — good jobs,” said Monghi Boughzala, a professor of economics at the University of Tunis. “These are not small, worthless businesses. They’re big commerce, banking, tourism, agriculture, land. You have to find out if they need to be managed, merged, liquidated or sold. You can’t just go and privatize.”