Leila Ben Ali hit the gold mine when she started having an affair with Tunisian President Ben Ali. During their initial trysts during the 1980s, Ben Ali was then a married prime minister under President Bourguiba and Leila was a simple salon owner from Marsa.
Ben Ali overthrew Bouguiba in a bloodless 1986 coup, and fearing that she may herself be dumped Leila told the new president that she was pregnant with a son. Because his first wife has failed to bear him a son, Ben Ali divorced her and married Leila. Turns out she was lying, and the baby was a girl [Leila did eventually bear a son a few years back, at the age of 50 something!]. But then Leila was already presented as Ali’s wife, and his only wife ever [his first marriage remained a secret for sometime].
Using her marriage to the nation’s most powerful man, the uneducated Leila brought in her commoner family in a shameless display of nepotism.
[Every Arab country has a nickname. Tunisia is called “el-khadar”; “the green” due to its lush Mediterranean landscape. The nation could be the jewel of the Mediterranean were it a democracy. Wikipedia.]
The Trabelsis, Leila’s maiden name, are infamous for their corruption. Using their position of new found power, the family has benefited handsomely from the state privatization of firms. Entire state assets have been privatized without competitive bidding and in many cases entire state monopolies have been transferred in whole to a new private owner, thus monopolies prices are still charged because the firm wasn’t broken up beforehand. In most cases of state privatization, patronage not competition has dictated who got what.
The Trabelsi has acquired a great deal. This is a family that was previously lower middle-class, and the current head of the family, Belhassan Trabelsi, who has acquired an unearned business empire did not even finish high school. But this is the corruption of present-day Tunisia.
Not only has the family acquired state assets through ostensible bidding; in essence they got profitable state enterprises for free. But it is widely know, and reported in such outfits as Freedom House, that the family has also used dubious bank loans to then further build their portfolio. These are bank loans which have no date for repayment.
The family owns a great deal; not all of which is publicly known. Among acquired monopolies, they have taken over the state franchise of licensing imported cars.
The Trabelsi’s also own Radio Mosaique, the nation’s only private radio station. And, using those convenient bank loans, have started their own airline, Carthago Airlines; whose brand name is has been expanded to include a hotel chain and travel agency. Note to readers: avoid Carthago everything!
This corruption, using high access to acquire assets, in mimicked by other elites.
All this is paying a heavy toll on Tunisia’s reputation. The has dropped from a score of 5 to 4.8, on a 10-point scale, on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
It is a shame. Tunisia is a great country with a liberal and skilled middle class, incredible food and an enviable landscape. The country under preforms due to its squalid and greedy leaders.