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Tunisia's ruthless former first lady

Discussion in 'Habari na Hoja mchanganyiko' started by ByaseL, Jan 27, 2011.

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    ByaseL JF-Expert Member

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    Jan 27, 2011
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    Written by Kim Willsher

    Leila Trabelsi, Tunisia's former first lady, was said to be a ‘Machiavellian figure . . . intelligent, ambitious, calculating, manipulating and utterly without scruples or morals’

    Every revolution has its femme fatale, the Lady Macbeth figure blamed and vilified - fairly or unfairly - for the woes of a downtrodden nation.


    The Philippines had Imelda Marcos, criticised for her shoe fetish; Romania had Elena Ceaucescu, who pretended to be a scientist; France had Marie Antoinette. After the unfolding of the jasmine revolution in Tunisia, the sinister game of "cherchez la femme" is being played once more.


    This time the target is the country's former first lady, Leila Trabelsi, second wife of the deposed president Zine el-Abidine Ben. If Ben Ali was despised by many in Tunisia, Trabelsi, it seems, was truly hated.


    Wives of overthrown leaders are usually reviled for their love of luxury and designer clothes or shoes - Marcos had 2,700 pairs - but Trabelsi, an elegant 53-year-old, appears to have gone even further, with unsubstantiated reports that she fled Tunisia last week with more than $50m worth of gold bars.


    “True or not, it's very believable. That's the sort of thing Leila Trabelsi would do,” French writer Catherine Graciet, co-author of a book on Tunisia's first lady, told the Guardian. “What's more, she wouldn't have the slightest qualm about doing it.”


    Trabelsi was brought up with 10 brothers in the heart of the Tunis medina, the daughter of a fruit and nut seller. She was working as a hairdresser when she met her future husband and gave birth to their first daughter while he was married to his first wife.


    When Ben Ali took power in 1987 he obtained a divorce and wed Trabelsi, who allegedly set about installing members of her family in positions of power.


    In the decades that followed the Trabelsi name became synonymous with the corruption that riddled Tunisian society and business, and a byword for shameless greed and excess - a son-in-law reportedly kept pet tigers in his garden, which he fed cuts of prime beef.
    “Whether it's cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali's family is rumoured to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants," said a US government cable revealed by WikiLeaks recently.


    Another stated: “Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of 'the Family' is enough to indicate which family you mean.


    Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage. Ben Ali's wife, Leila Ben Ali, and her extended family - the Trabelsis - provoke the greatest ire from Tunisians.”


    Graciet, whose book La Regente de Carthage, written with Nicolas Beau, is being quickly reprinted, says Leila Trabelsi's reputation, and that of her relatives, is deserved.
    “She was extremely powerful in running her family and ensuring they had their hands on very large parts of the economy. She also had political powermaking decisions about government posts and firing ministers.”


    She concludes that Trabelsi was a “Machiavellian figure . . . intelligent, ambitious, calculating, manipulating and utterly without scruples or morals.
    “In short, she was absolutely fascinating!”
     
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