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Leila Trabelsi, Former Tunisian First Lady, Family Despised By Nation

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LEILA BEN ALI
AP

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisians couldn't stand her even more than they couldn't stand him.

The end of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's iron-fisted, 23-year rule brought joy to many ordinary people in this North African nation – and they were especially elated at the prospect of life without his wife and her rapacious family.

The clan of former first lady Leila Trabelsi, a one-time hairdresser who rose to become Tunisia's most influential woman, was widely despised as the ultimate symbol of corruption and excess. Leila and her 10 siblings are said to have operated like a mafia, extorting money from shop owners, demanding a stake in businesses large and small, and divvying up plum concessions among themselves.

Their control over the North African country's economy was vast. The Trabelsi and Ben Ali's own families were said to have a stake in Tunisian banks and airlines, car dealerships, Internet providers, radio and television stations, industry and big retailers.

And when mass protests forced Ben Ali to flee Friday to Saudi Arabia, his peoples' pent-up rage was directed more at Leila's side of the family than at her husband and his authoritarian regime.

Retribution was swift. Within a day of Ben Ali's departure, many of the sumptuous villas and businesses belonging to the Trabelsis were pillaged and burned, and some reports said one prominent family member was killed by an angry mob. A Tunis Air pilot who refused to take off with five fleeing family members on board has become a national hero.

A branch of the Zeitouna bank in Tunis founded by Ben Ali's son-in-law was torched, as were vehicles made by the car brands he distributed, including Kia, Fiat and Porsche.

"They (the Trabelsis) are thieves, tricksters and even killers," raged Tunis resident Mantasser Ben Mabrouk. "Their only goal was to make money in whatever way they could."

His friend Mohamed Gaddahi agreed, laying – as many here do – much of the blame for the regime's abuses squarely on the Trabelsis.

"The president did lots of good, but the family did lots of harm to Tunisia," Gaddahi said.

U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks appear to shore up that conclusion. A June 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tunis describes a report by anti-corruption group Transparency International saying: "Whether it's cash, services, land, property ... President Ben Ali's family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants."

The economic fallout of the Trabelsis' web of corruption and influence-mongering was palpable, the cable said, with "Tunisian investors – fearing the long-arm of 'the Family' – forgoing new investments, keeping domestic investment rates low and unemployment high."

A lack of jobs in this highly educated nation fueled the month of popular protests that toppled Ben Ali. The uprising began in December after a despairing university graduate who sold fruits and vegetables without a permit set himself on fire and died because police confiscated his goods.

The co-author of a book on Leila Trabelsi, "La Regente de Carthage," says the Trabelsis played an "absolutely capital" role in the fall of the regime.

"Tunisians were absolutely aware of what they were up to and they got to a point where they were sick and tired of their behavior," said author Catherine Graciet. Still, she noted that "we can't put all the blame on the Trabelsis, because it was Ben Ali himself who allowed them to act that way."

Leila Trabelsi was born in 1957 – the fifth of 11 children of a dried fruits vendor and a housewife, according to Graciet's book.

After working as a hairdresser and having a short-lived first marriage, Trabelsi married Ben Ali in 1992, five years after the bloodless palace coup in which he replaced aging independence hero Habib Bourguiba as president.

The marriage – which was also Ben Ali's second – catapulted the once-modest Trabelsi clan to national prominence.

Her oldest brother, Belhassen, known as the clan chieftain, is said to have ruled over the family's many mafia-style rackets.

Her nephew, Imed Trabelsi, was reputed to be the spoiled brat of the family and the former first lady's favorite, according to the book. Known as a playboy, he enjoyed a jet-set lifestyle, complete with a garage full of sports cars and yachts.

French prosecutors suspected him and another of Leila Trabelsi's nephews of having ordered the 2006 theft of a yacht belonging to a French investment banker that turned up in the Tunisian port of Sidi Bou Said. Still, a French judge ruled that the two Trabelsis could be tried at home, despite the fact that Tunisia was ruled by their uncle. It was not clear if any trial was ever held in Tunisia.

Some Tunisian media reports said Imed Trabelsi was recognized at the Tunis airport as he attempted to flee the country hours after the regime crumbled – and was attacked by an angry mob. Conflicting reports said he was stabbed by a fisherman in the town where he was mayor, an upscale coastal town near the capital. He reportedly died from his wounds at a Tunis military hospital over the weekend.

It was not immediately possible to verify those reports.

Graciet said the ex-first lady tried to block the book's release on the ground that it painted an unflattering portrait of her, but a French judge rejected Trabelsi's legal motion.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, and Tunisian media reported he was joined by his wife and a few other relatives. The couple has two girls and one boy.

The whereabouts of all family members was unclear. France, which ruled Tunisia as a protectorate until it won independence in 1956, said some Ben Ali relatives were in France but they were "not welcome" to stay. Media reports had them at a hotel near the Disneyland Paris resort.

French government spokesman Francois Baroin also said France had taken "the necessary steps" to block any suspicious movement of Tunisian assets linked to Ben Ali and his entourage that might be squirreled away in France.

Mohamed Ben Kilani, the pilot of a scheduled Tunis Air flight to Lyon, France, became an instant hero at home after he refused to take off Friday with five members of the Trabelsi family on board, airline officials say.

"It was a courageous act that merits being highlighted," Ali Miaoui, director of Tunis Air's French division, told AP Television News.

This is not the first time that anger has crystallized toward the wives of dictators, despots and autocrats.

In the 1980s, the public was more outraged at the spending excesses of Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos – a shoe addict of legendary proportions – than at her husband Ferdinand Marcos, who allegedly amassed billions of dollars in ill-gotten wealth during his 21 years in power.

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's marriage to the flamboyant and free-spending Michelle Pasquet estranged the Haitian dictator from his father's old supporters. He was deposed in 1987.

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Barchfield reported from Paris.

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