Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Fall of Ben Ali

Guest post by Kevin Ovenden
New Left Project

Ben Ali
Over the last quarter of a century the regime in Tunis has narrowed its social base. It swung behind US hegemony in the region. Its main policy internally became police repression rather than any kind of accommodation or integration of the constitutional Islamists, the union and the left. Wealth became concentrated in the hands of fewer families at top, including the extended family of Leila Trabelsi, the ex-president’s wife. The story of Ben Ali and Trabelsi’s rise is fascinating and tells you everything about the amoral, corrupt cliques that have so much power across the region.

He was a motorcycle cop who climbed through the bloody ranks to become head of security. He was a filthy piece of work - the Lavrenti Beria of Tunisia. He had a penchant for using his position to take whatever woman he wanted, though inducements or directly through rape - think of Claude Raines’s character in Casablanca without the charm, bons mots or pangs of conscience in the final reel.

A friend of mine, the wife of a senior Palestinian official of the time, recalls her stay in Tunis.

Ben Ali followed her car all through the backstreets until she came to a hotel. There, she got out, told him who she was and that her husband had no compunctions about suitable reprisals should he not back off. Forlorn, he did.

Leila washed hair in a coiffeurs. She was attractive and presented well in European society. So the owner used her as a currier to smuggle high value items in from Paris. She was caught and put in the police cells. A grubby officer saw her and told his boss, Ben Ali that there was an attractive young woman in custody. She was brought to him. He told her she would be released if she agreed to be his mistress (he was already married). Under what was clearly some duress, she agreed.

She bore two daughters. He rose through various positions - ambassador, interior minister and the like - and at her insistence secretly married her in a civil ceremony in, iirc, Poland: the then Tunisian president had outlawed polygamy. Then he made a pitch for the top job. She was expecting their son.

He moved in to the Presidential Palace with his official wife, but Leila kicked up such a stink that he divorced and she moved in. Her brother, a small time mafiosi, overnight was transformed into one of Tunisia’s leading businessmen. Stellar advancement beckoned for the rest of the Trabelsi clan as Tunisia itself sank into the nightmare of police repression, corruption on a Croesian scale and slavish adherence to US/French policy interests, all glossed over in Washington, London and Paris, of course, as they encouraged tourism and then latterly the enforced one way flights of rendition to the black jails of the Tunisian desert.

So - an endearing first family for life. Somehow I don’t hear a Llyod-Webber musical in the wings, a la Evita: Eva Peron had in contrast infinite redeeming features.

Ben Ali was not alone at the top of a pyramid of sadistic repression, grand corruption internally and pimping the country externally. The core of the movement of demonstrations and strikes is surely right in focusing the next steps on the complete clearing out of all those tainted by association with the regime. The caretaker President is already being targeted and the protests continuing.

Ben Ali: "What's yours is mine"
It is enormously significant that one of the most pro-western and seemingly stable dictators in the Arab world has fallen in a revolution. Only belatedly do events seem to be entering the calculus of Western policy makers and of potentates and princes in the Middle East. Sarkozy was looking forward to playing kingmaker in the unfolding crisis in another former French possession, Lebanon, as Western forces vainly try to get their ducks in a row to isolate Hizbollah and turn back the strengthening alliance between Turkey, Syria and Iran, thus shoring up their own interests and those of Israel.

Just when they were starting to cohere a policy in the Levant, however shot through with wishful-thinking, the first revolution in the wider region for three decades enters the equation. It’s a funny old world as someone once put it.


According to friends who I've just spoken to by phone, there is now a sharpening focus on dismantling the Mukhabarat and most repressive security apparatus and on the driving out the most reviled and corrupt members of the elite. The army and securitat are very largely intact and the barely formed emergency government is seeking to up the presence on the streets to bring the movement to heal. The second wave of the uprising is now taking place. The regime still lacks an interlocutor with the authority to calm the movement in the foolish hope of coming to an accommodation with what is essentially Ben Ali's apparatus sans Ben Ali. Discussion - largely semi-formal - is taking place everywhere in gatherings in neighbourhoods, syndicates, mosques and some larger workplaces.

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