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The Godfathers of Tunis

Tunisia’s new government has declared war on sleaze -- but that’s much easier said than done.


Belhassen Trabelsi is not your typical immigrant seeking refugee status in Canada. For starters, he arrived in Canada on a private jet. His family owned a $2.5 million mansion in Montreal — at least until the Canadian government confiscated it. And unlike many people escaping their home countries, Trabelsi is fleeing a democratically elected government, one that came to power after the Tunisian people revolted against the rule of Trabelsi’s brother-in-law, longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Trabelsi — a balding, baby-faced 49-year-old with sunken eyes and a large double chin — is the brother of Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali’s wife. According to U.S. Embassy cables leaked by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, Belhassen Trabelsi is "the most notorious family member" in Ben Ali’s extended family. The cables refer to the entire family as a "quasi-mafia," noting that "the Trabelsis’ strong-arm tactics and flagrant abuse of the system make them easy to hate." Described in the French press as a "hoodlum," Trabelsi profited from his sister’s 1992 marriage, using public institutions and resources to create a Tunisian business empire that included luxury hotels, an airline, a radio station, a newspaper and two banks.

Trabelsi fled for Montreal when Tunisians took to the streets in the winter of 2011 to bring down the Ben Ali regime. Despite a request from the Tunisian government to extradite Trabelsi so that he may face justice, the Canadian authorities, by holding fast to legal procedures designed to protect the rights of legitimate asylum seekers, have allowed him to remain. Earlier this month, Trabelsi lost his bid to have his Canadian permanent residency reinstated, but it is likely he will remain in Canada for years while he appeals for refugee status.

In many ways, Tunisia’s so-called Jasmine Revolution was a rejection of the corrupt system led by a small oligarchic clan in which Trabelsi figured so prominently. Yet even today, corruption remains one of Tunisia’s major challenges in creating a democratic system. Tunisia has made some headway on the domestic front by confiscating local Ben Ali assets, bringing some of the old oligarchs into custody, and setting up anti-corruption mechanisms. Yet the new government is still struggling to fully reckon with the abuses of the past. One of the biggest challenges: Bringing all ex-regime figures to justice and recovering Tunisian financial assets — over $15 billion by some estimates — that were spirited away and hidden around the world.

"This is a fight between two groups: The Tunisian state and an international mafia," says Abderrahmane Ladgham, referring to the Trabelsi and Ben Ali family and those who continue to support them. Ladgham, a member of the coalition government’s center-left Ettakatol party, is a deputy prime minister in charge of governance and the fight against corruption.

"The old regime had a face, a façade that it presented to the West, as a developed country, the good little boy of the World Bank, the good little boy of the IMF, a country open to tourism, to culture, and a second face which was repressive, intolerant, opaque, corrupted," says Ladgham. He insists that today’s Tunisia, by contrast, is ready to face up to the abuses of the past, saying that the government is committed to transparency, "even if the dossiers or the reports are made against us [members of the government]."

So far, however, the job of retrieving foreign assets and bringing those old regime figures to justice has been hindered by a lack of full cooperation by countries that had good relations with the Ben Ali family. These include Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar — all still home to members of the family — as well as Switzerland and France. Some of these countries have made gestures in the right direction. Canada seized a Ben Ali family mansion and $100,000 in bank accounts, while Switzerland, Qatar, and the European Union have frozen bank accounts that were directly owned by Ben Ali and his wife. But Tunisian officials say these steps account for only a tiny portion of the former regime’s assets. They believe that much of the rest was either transferred to other family members, or moved from bank accounts to more complex financial instruments. Ladgham adds that some countries don’t want to help in an active way, using their internal legislation as pretexts.

When it comes to dealing with internal assets, the Tunisian government has managed to confiscate hundreds of businesses, banks, insurance companies and several pieces of real estate that were controlled by the previous regime. Many of these are in the form of conglomerates, such as Princesse Holding — a group controlled by Ben Ali’s son-in-law, Sakher el-Materi — that encompasses businesses in all major sectors of the Tunisian economy, ranging from car importers to publishing companies and banks. The broad scale of the confiscations attests to just how widespread corruption was under the old regime. Nearly all major businesses were either owned outright by the former ruling family or had arrangements with them. Government ministries were often used as tools for furthering the same interests.

The politics of managing the newly confiscated assets has proven difficult. Full accounts of the assets, now under the control of the central bank, were only just being compiled in September. As of this March, Tunisia’s elected government had still not decided which assets to sell and how they will be sold. Beyond that, Ladgham says that the government may confiscate more assets, because it is "discovering more and more people who are related to the ruling family."

While many of these assets have been seized, Tunisia’s new government is finding it difficult to bring to justice those who were in charge. "Our main difficulty lies with those people who profited in the old system," says Samir Annabi, the new chief of Tunisia’s National Commission against Corruption and the Misappropriation of Funds. "They will try to defend themselves. It’s a continuation of the old system."

The commission is one of the few tools at the disposal of the Tunisian government as it begins cleaning house within the government. Annabi was appointed only recently, four months after the previous chief died in office. Ladgham says that the period of the commission’s inactivity amounts to "wasted time" in the fight against corruption. Annabi has over 6,000 files to work through. The files document corruption complaints that were collected under the previous transitional government from citizens and officials alike, although the full extent of their contents is unclear. "Behind each file is at least one person seeking justice," says Annabi, explaining that cases documented in the files will be investigated and referred to the as-yet-unreformed court system.

Annabi’s task is made harder, according to Ladgham, by the fact that unspecified parties, both inside and outside the government, object to giving the commission too much power, on the grounds that the body might abuse its authority by selectively choosing which cases to investigate.

Samir Dilou, the Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, also faces an uphill battle. The primary task of his ministry is to design a new justice system in consultation with civil society groups, legal bodies, and political parties. Yet even this relatively focused mission is meeting with considerable resistance. "A regime does not die a sudden death," says Dilou. "It always has that unfortunate habit of perpetuating itself. It’s not a question of individual agency, but of a well-entrenched system."

His job has its contradictions. Shortly after the elections, in his role as Minister of Human Rights, he visited the dozens of ex-regime figures jailed at the Al-Aouina military base, in response to complaints about uncomfortable imprisonment conditions. That the minister even felt compelled to make such a visit may come as a shock to the hundreds of thousands of Tunisians — many of them instrumental in the uprisings that led to the overthrow of the old regime — who find themselves without jobs today. University graduates in the interior of Tunisia, among whom unemployment runs between 30 and 40 percent, have continued to hold regular demonstrations since the revolution, calling for jobs, justice, and a more accountable government. (Unemployed university graduates are seen demonstrating in the image above.) A recent report by the International Crisis Group notes that the Tunisian authorities’ "gradualist" approach to coming to terms with the past has its drawbacks, leaving unanswered wide-scale demands for both justice and accountability,

"We want more transparency and disclosure of information," says Mouheb Garoui, 24, president of I-Watch, a nongovernmental transparency and corruption organization formed in the wake of the revolution. The urgency of dealing with corruption was made clear when Transparency International released its 2011 Corruption Perception Index. Tunisia’s global rank fell 14 places since the revolution, though this may be partly due to better reporting about the previous regime’s crimes. "Asking for the end of a corrupt regime and succeeding in changing the ruler don’t necessarily mean that the rules, or the structure, have changed," says Sion Assidon, the head of Transparency’s regional office.

According to one poll published in April, 75 percent of Tunisians do not believe that the new government succeeded in fighting corruption and bribery in its first 100 days. (Gauging public opinion on the issue is tricky, since Tunisia still lacks independent polling organizations.) For his part, Ladgham believes that measuring corruption by public perception is not necessarily useful.

Still, despite the myriad challenges, Ladgham believes that Tunisia is on the right path: "We have nothing to be ashamed of, because we are beginning to learn and we have the will to do something about it."

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