Leila Ben Ali Trabelsi
President Ben Ali's extended family was often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption. Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of "the Family" was enough to indicate which family was meant. Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage. Ben Ali's wife, Leila Ben Ali, and her extended family -- the Trabelsis -- provoke the greatest ire from Tunisians. Along with the numerous allegations of Trabelsi corruption are often barbs about their lack of education, low social status, and conspicuous consumption.
While some of the complaints about the Trabelsi clan seem to emanate from a disdain for their nouveau riche inclinations, Tunisians also argue that the Trabelsis strong arm tactics and flagrant abuse of the system make them easy to hate. Leila's brother Belhassen Trabelsi is the most notorious family member and is rumored to have been involved in a wide-range of corrupt schemes from the Banque de Tunisie board shakeup to property expropriation and extortion of bribes.
Leaving the question of their progenitor aside, Belhassen Trabelsi's holdings are extensive and included an airline, several hotels, one of Tunisia's two private radio stations, car assembly plants, Ford distribution, a real estate development company, and the list goes on. Yet, Belhassen is only one of Leila's ten known siblings, each with their own children. Among this large extended family, Leila's brother Moncef and nephew Imed are also particularly important economic actors.
President Ben Ali was often given a pass, with many Tunisians arguing that he is being used by the Trabelsi clan and is unaware of their shady dealings. Even strong supporters of the government said that the problem was not Ben Ali, but "the Family" going too far and breaking the rules. Nevertheless, it was hard to believe Ben Ali is not aware, at least generally, of the growing corruption problem. This might also reflect the seeming geographical divisions between the Ben Ali and Trabelsi fiefdoms, with the Ben Ali clan reportedly focused on the central coastal regional and the Trabelsi clan operating out of the greater Tunis area and therefore, generating the bulk of the gossip. The Ben Ali side of the Family and his children and in-laws from his first marriage were also implicated in a number of stories.
With real estate development booming and land prices on the rise, owning property or land in the right location can either be a windfall or a one-way ticket to expropriation. In summer 2007, Leila Ben Ali received a desirable tract of land in Carthage for free from the GOT in order to build the for-profit Carthage International School. In addition to the land, the school received a 1.8 million dinar (US $1.5 million) gift from the Government of Tunisia, and within a matter of weeks the Government had built new roads and stoplights to facilitate school access. It has been reported that Ms. Ben Ali has sold the Carthage International School to Belgian investors, and such sale would be pure profit since Ms. Ben Ali's received land, infrastructure, and a hefty bonus at no cost.
Lax oversight makes the banking sector an excellent target of opportunity, with multiple stories of "First Family" schemes. The reshuffle at Banque de Tunisie, with the Foreign Minister's wife assuming the presidency and Belhassen Trabelsi named to the board, is the latest example.
Leila Ben Ali's late mother, Hajja Nana, is also reported to have acted as a broker for both school admissions and government job placement, providing her facilitation services for a commission. Among the complaints from the protestors in the mining area of Gafsa were allegations that jobs in the Gafsa Phosphate Company were given on the basis of connections and bribery.
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