Regime’s ex­cesses on dis­play in­side Tu­nisian man­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - TURMOIL IN THE MIDDLE EAST - BY SU­DARSAN RAGHA­VAN ragha­vans@wash­post.com

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-to­ceil­ing 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 has is­sued an in­ter­na­tional ar­rest war­rant for Ben Ali and his fam­ily, 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 hold­ings, 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.

Lav­ish life­style

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 St. 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 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.

SU­DARSAN RAGHA­VAN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Tu­nisians visit the ran­sacked house of Kais Ben Ali, a nephew of the for­mer pres­i­dent, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in­Ham­mamet. For more pho­tos of the house, go to wapo.st/tunisia­man­sion.

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