“The Queen of Carthage”. That is the title of a new French book on the powerful Tunisian First Lady Leila Ben Ali and her Trabelsi clan. Banned in Tunisian, the First Lady unsuccessfully sued to ban it in France.
Ben Ali’s second wife, she was his mistress and then manipulated him into marrying after claiming that she was pregnant with the son he had always wanted. She gave birth to a daughter, but they were married then and he had since become president and a divorce was no longer reasonable in public eyes (a few years ago, over the age of 50 and when he was 70, Leila finally produced that sought-after son: Mohamed).
Not long after settling in as First Lady, Leila and her family began a very successful monopolization scheme on the Tunisian economy. First, the 1990s under Ben Ali’s reign brought about widespread privatization of state enterprises. The Trabelsi clan was well-positioned to inherit, not buy or bid for, but solely inherit profitable industries without exhausting a dime of their own money. For instance, the family took over the licensing industry of foreign cars.
That was not enough for this infamously inexhaustibly greedy clan. Securing “loans” (again: “loans”) from private banks, they started a hotel chain, a travel agency and the nation’s first private airline (all part of the to-be-boycotted (if your decent) Karthago Group). The family also owns the only private radio station in Tunisian (Mosique FM).
The head of the Trabelsi is the eldest, high-school dropout son Belhassan. A crude man whose mafia reach is throughout the nation. And there is Leila’s son-in-law Mohamed Skhr Matri. New to the game, his business empire is rapidly growing and there is rumor that he may succeed the ailing Ben Ali (73, and recently elected to a fifth term).
But Mohamed will have to battle Leila. It is universally believed in Tunis that the equally uneducated Leila aspires to replace her husband:
Mrs al Trabelsi, who is chairwoman of the Arab Women’s Organisation, is planning to play a major part in the forthcoming elections, slated for October 25, in order to secure her husband’s spot for herself. She plays a double-edged role: she leads her tribe and has political ambitions, but seemingly remains the loyal wife committed to her husband’s agenda.
Ben Ali is a brute thug, but Tunisia is not without accomplishments under his reign:
Its economy has grown steadily. It is open to Western business, liberal on trade and has attracted a lot of foreign investors. Exports, especially of textiles and motor components, three-quarters of them to Europe, now account for 47% of GDP. Tourism is booming, too.
So the country gets good sovereign-risk ratings from agencies such as Standard & Poor’s. The Swiss-based World Economic Forum ranks Tunisia as Africa’s most competitive country. Ordinary Tunisians’ lives have improved, with income per head doubling in real terms since 1990. Women enjoy better rights than do many of their north African counterparts.
Ben Ali has genuine concern for the advancement of Tunis. But Leila has not a shred of humanitarian regard for fellow Tunisians. Her family is busy monopolizing the economy and with her as president Tunisia would be ruined since even today foreign investment is undermined due to the fear of foreigners of “step[ing] on the toes of the ruling family.”
President Leila would turn the whole nation into a renter state for the God-forsaken Trabelsi.
Pity Tunisians if that day ever rises.