Tunisia's Message

By Dehghanpisheh, Babak; Dickey, Christopher | Newsweek, January 31, 2011 | Go to article overview

Tunisia's Message


Dehghanpisheh, Babak, Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek


Byline: Babak Dehghanpisheh and Christopher Dickey

Ben Ali's fall has exposed the rotten truth of every regime in the Arab world: they're all, in effect, mafia states, each operating as a lucrative family business.

At first, the family of Tunisia's toppled president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, refused to accept that its decades of pillage and profligacy were over. As rioting killed scores of people in Tunisia's streets, Ben Ali's daughter and her husband holed up in a luxury suite at Disneyland Paris. Ben Ali's wife, Leila Trabelsi, flying out of Tunisia aboard her own jet, grabbed as much money as she could--including, by some accounts, a ton and a half of gold from the nation's central bank. Even after the bank denied the story, Tunisians continued to believe it. A new rallying cry broke out: "Hang them all--but let's get our gold back first!"

Looters didn't wait. Last week, only days after Ben Ali and his wife fled to Saudi Arabia, the family's villas in Tunisia had been stripped bare. In living rooms and bedrooms with commanding views of the sun-flecked Mediterranean, shattered glass crunched underfoot. On the road to the house of one of Trabelsi's nephews, men carrying machetes laughed as they described piles of pornography that had been carted away. At the home of Leila's sister Jalila, empty boxes from Swarovski, Chanel, and Prada littered the rooms, and the smell of burned plastic mingled with the scent left by rioters who had urinated on the wreckage.

It was a far cry from the visions of transformation that swept the rest of the region. For a moment, at least, people in all corners of the stagnating Arab world dared to hope that Tunisia might do for them what the fall of the Berlin Wall did for the people of the decaying Soviet empire. "A lot of people in the Arab world have Tunisia envy right now," says Fouad Ajami of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. They may have forgotten the similar burst of enthusiasm that swept the region in 2009, when millions of protesters took to Iran's streets after the disputed presidential election there. That dream evaporated as soon as Tehran's thugs crushed the uprising. At this point there's no telling where Tunisia is headed. "The question is whether people will have Tunisia envy in a month," Ajami says.

Meanwhile, however, the fall of Ben Ali has exposed the rotten truth behind every regime in the Arab world: they are all, in effect, mafia states--entire nations run by families for their own benefit. Whether they call themselves republics or monarchies, whether they are friendly or hostile to the United States, their governance has less in common with the Magna Carta than with La Cosa Nostra.

As Tunisia's intelligence chief in the 1980s, Ben Ali built close ties to the CIA, and for decades Washington made excuses for him. In 1987 he staged a bloodless coup against the doddering president, Habib Bourguiba, and after 9/11 he became one of the Bush administration's most reliable allies in the Global War on Terror. Diplomats in Tunis told NEWSWEEK in 2003 that Tunisia was "a country that works"--a relatively benign regime where criticism of the leader might bring torture and jail, but probably not death. It was "a soft dictatorship," the diplomats said, "more like Singapore or South Korea in the 1980s than like some other Arab countries today."

But all the while, Ben Ali and his family were acting out a real-life gangster movie. Trabelsi, like many other mob girlfriends, came from a humble background: one of 11 children of a Tunis fruit-and-nut vendor. …

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