No book seems to have spurred Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s notorious enmity towards critical journalists as much as this timely compilation of accounts of his second wife’s rise to political and economic influence and alleged involvement in corruption, at a time when, according to the two French investigative journalists who wrote it, his autocratic rule “nears its end” for health reasons.
Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser who Ben Ali supposedly befriended when he was a top security officer and married five years after he took power in 1987, filed a lawsuit in Paris against the authors for defamation. The French courts rejected her request for an immediate ban and permitted the release of the book shortly before Ben Ali’s unsurprising re-election in October to a fifth five-year term in office.
Although not as richly documented as Notre Ami Ben Ali, which Beau co-authored with Le Monde’s Jean- Pierre Tuquoi and was published a few weeks before Ben Ali’s Orwellian re-election 10 years ago with 99% of the votes, La Régente de Carthage has attracted more media attention and caused more anger in the presidential palace. The book, together with critical articles and remarks by beleaguered Tunisian journalists and dissidents, is widely credited with having helped cut Ben Ali’s tally from nearly 95% in 2004 to 89.62% in the last election. International press freedom groups reported a surge in attacks on journalists in Tunisia following the publication of the book in France. Their baggage was searched for copies on arrival at Tunis’ Carthage airport. Websites posting or reporting it were blocked. Local journalists, particularly those quoted by the authors or suspected of cooperating with their foreign colleagues, were assaulted or jailed, amid an unprecedented smear campaign against critical Tunisian and foreign reporters.
The authors note that without the rights – unique in the region – granted to Tunisian women by former President Habib Bourguiba a few months after independence in 1956, neither his second wife, Wassila Ben Ammar, nor his successor’s would have been able to exert as much political influence or enjoy such limelight as both have done. But Leila Trabelsi is portrayed as much more voracious and dangerous to the country’s future than the “Glorious Wassila”, who was divorced by the elderly and erratic Bourguiba a year before his eviction for “senility” by Ben Ali.
According to the authors, Trabelsi is not only in great health at 52, but has also been privy to all state secrets since 1987. She has placed her cronies and mercenaries everywhere, and, along with an extended family that has demonstrated flawless solidarity, accumulated a war chest of treasure that can “buy the docility of any hesitant person”. Hence, allegedly, the infamous 2005 law that granted huge “retirement benefits” to former presidents upon leaving office or to their families in the event of their death. The law was quickly passed, approved and published at a time when rumours about the president’s health were on the rise.
Beau and Graciet argue that if Ben Ali, 73, were to suddenly die or become incapacitated his manipulative wife might become “the regent of Carthage” and transform Tunisia from a “soft dictatorship” into a “banana republic”. Their only son, Mohamed, is still under 10 years old. The authors echo intensifying rumours among Tunisians that the first lady’s favourite candidate for succession is her son-in-law, the rising businessman and politician Sakher Materi, 29, who emerged as one of the country’s richest industrial and media tycoons after his marriage to her daughter Nesrine. The first lady’s younger brother, the ubiquitous businessman Belhassan Trabelsi, is another leading figure in what Tunisians refer to as the “ruling family”.
The authors also recount how nephews Imed and Moez Trabelsi were protected from prosecution in France after being implicated in the theft of luxury yachts. One of the stolen vessels, seen anchored in May 2006 near the Carthage Presidential Palace, is owned by Bruno Roger, a banker close to former president Jacques Chirac and his then interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Both men earned reputations for praising Ben Ali’s leadership skills. Sarkozy was the first head of state, after Col Qadhafi, who has ruled neighbouring Libya since 1969, to congratulate Ben Ali on his latest re-election.
Beau and Graciet make much of the ability of Ben Ali’s lobbyists in Paris to widen the circle of his supporters among French politicians of different leanings. They include an “hospitable man” who often invites journalists covering Tunisia to dine at the best Parisian restaurants and “to spend their holidays with their families at one of his clubs in Tunisia, at the princess’ expense.”
The authors go on to contrast France’s kowtowing with the way the US has been raising its voice to criticise Ben Ali’s worsening human rights record and urge an end to attacks on the press. Washington also encourages its diplomats to meet with Tunisian dissidents “to the great fury of the presidential palace in Carthage”. In the absence of “a coherent and genuine political dialogue” with Tunisia, they conclude, “Paris is reduced to flattering a dictator on his way out.”