Neighbors in Tunisia express disgust over former first lady’s family
He was not a good neighbor. His ferocious dogs roamed the street in front of his upscale villa, scaring away children and passersby. He drove his Mercedes way too fast down the street of the serene suburb. He demanded that the mosque’s muezzin shut up during the morning call to prayers.
He wanted to sleep in.
But no one dared complain. After all, he was Houssam Trabelsi, a nephew to the wife of Zine el Abidine ben Ali, the Tunisian president who was deposed and driven out of the country Friday in a popular uprising fueled in part by the antics and corruption of the first family.
On Sunday, curious Tunisians out for a stroll during a sun-drenched morning rummaged through the looted and ransacked homes of the former first family, expressing disgust at their perceived opulence while making off with a few souvenirs. They found photographs of the Trabelsis with their children, birth certificates for horses, bills for parties costing thousands of dollars and built-in Jacuzzis.
“It is the money of our nation,” said 13-year-old Fathi, who declined to give his last name, as he stripped bits of copper and silver from one of the cars. “It is the money of my mother, my father. We just want justice.”
Tunisia’s uprising was sparked by the self-immolation of a poor young man unable to make ends meet in the face of widespread corruption and unemployment. But the overthrow received the ringing endorsement of even the stuffiest of the country’s bourgeoisie in part because of the Trabelsis.
Former first lady Leila ben Ali was a hairdresser and widely believed to have been the president’s mistress before she married Ben Ali in 1992. Ben Ali hailed from a respected and wealthy family, and his old money relatives generally distanced themselves from the country’s leadership as its antics became too much to bear.
“She is the chief of all this infection in [the] Trabelsi family,” said Salwa Charfi, a professor of journalism in Tunis.
The Trabelsis were nouveau riches. They were a hungry, ambitious and, many Tunisians say, ruthless crowd unashamed to use their connection to the first family to gain favors — everything from concessions to sell cars to sweet deals on land.
At the spacious two-story villa of the late Adel Trabelsi, described as either a nephew or uncle of the former first lady, visitors on Sunday rummaging through the house gawked at the finely crafted pool and built-in elevator.
“Look at this,” said Sabiha Nsiri, 31, a well-to-do neighbor who took some plates from the kitchen. “They have an elevator for just one floor while our old people are forced to walk floor after floor in apartment buildings and ministries.”
She alleged that the hilltop house, with a view of the Mediterranean, was built on land stolen from another Tunisian. “They took the people’s lands,” she said. “The Trabelsis are like cockroaches. They fed on everything.”
The Trabelsis intimidated the country’s wealthy old guard, moving into palatial villas in the best sections of town. Sometimes if they wanted something — say a yacht from a French businessman — they took it, as reported by a classified U.S. diplomatic cable released last month by the website WikiLeaks.
“They forced owners to sell their properties at basement prices,” said Hedi Gharbi, a 42-year-old boat dealer. “They forced landlords to sell their lands so they could build hotels. Sometimes they paid. Sometimes they didn’t pay. Their reputations varied.”
On Sunday in the scenic seaside town of Sidi Bou Said, distinguished by the cheery blue doors on its white homes, members of the national guard protected a boat harbor that was until a week ago the playground of Belhassen Trabelsi, the first lady’s brother.
On a property that according to locals he forcibly purchased from one of the country’s elite, he created an exclusive gambling club for him and his friends. It smelled of grilled fish and expensive cigars. Men played poker and belote, a French version of bridge.
“I hate them,” said a national guardsman assigned to protect the harbor and prevent Ben Ali loyalists from escaping. “I hope they die.”