Ben Ali’s family, clan target of angry Tunisians

Mourad Teyeb in Tunis, Wednesday 19 Jan 2011

Ben Ali’s personal guards are only one side of the dictatorship - wife, family and clan all exercised power on the country

Ben Ali
(Photo: Reuters)

Snipers, pillaging, night shooting…all are incidents Tunisians were used to seeing only in the movies and in news from Iraq, Gaza and Darfur. But since late December, these scenes have become a part of their daily lives, from Bizerte on the Mediterranean coast to Ben Guerdane by the Libyan border.

Curiously, it is in Ben Guerdane, a poor and quiet city of 15,000, where Ali Seriati, former head of security for the country’s ousted president, was arrested.

Seriati and several of his deputies are set to appear before a court for creating division among the people, threatening national security, and instigating armed violence among Tunisians, the state news agency reported on Sunday.

Since violence erupted throughout the country a month ago, tens of people have been shot dead, despite current ‘official’ police announcements stating that “no orders were given to open fire on protestors.”

It was only when Ben Ali left the country that Tunisians found out what was really behind most of the weeks-long violence.

Fierce gun battles broke out between two groups around the presidential palace Sunday in Carthage, on the Mediterranean shore, north of Tunis and near the Interior Ministry in the Capital.

Tensions mounted between those Tunisians buoyant over Ben Ali's departure and loyalists in danger of losing major perks built up under his patronage. Tunisian police has made dozens of arrests, some for drive-by shootings on buildings and people in Tunis.

The army has used helicopter gunships to fight off attacks by gunmen loyal to Ben Ali, while divided factions in the regime engaged in fierce clashes in the streets and on the rooftops of high-rise buildings. Tough gun battles raged on Monday at the presidential palace, central bank and interior ministry.  

The personal guard of Ben Ali, estimated at 800 well-trained, well-paid, armed men, “is just the unknown side of the clan of the former president and his wife, Leila Trabelsi,” explained one observer.

Trabelsi’s and Ben Ali's own families rose to become Tunisia's ultimate symbol of corruption and excess. They are said to have operated like a mafia, extorting money from shop owners, demanding a stake in businesses large and small, and divvying up plum concessions between themselves.

Their control over the country's economy was vast, with stakes in Tunisian banks, airlines, car dealerships, internet providers, radio and television stations, industry and big retailers.

And Tunisians’ retribution was immediate and harsh. Hours after Ben Ali's departure, many of the sumptuous villas and businesses belonging to the Trabelsis were pillaged and burned, and one prominent family member was killed by an angry mob.

Mohamed Ben Kilani, a Tunisair pilot, was said to have refused to take off with five fleeing family members on board and has since become a national hero. “I haven’t personally suffered from the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clan,” Kilani was reported by as having said, “but I know many who have.”

“Everyone one of us (Tunisians) has to move. To move for our freedom,” Kilani declared.

A Tunis branch of Zeitouna bank, founded by Ben Ali's son-in-law, was torched, as were vehicles made by the brands he distributed, including Kia, Fiat and Porsche.

“They (the Trabelsis) are thieves, tricksters and even killers,” raged Tunisians, shouting outside a two-floor mansion in La Marsa, a chic suburb of Carthage. “Their only goal was to make money in whatever way they could.”

This post-Ben Ali mood explains to a great extent why Tunisians are still rioting in the streets. The horrors perpetrated by the former president and his allies were so unbearable that Tunisians no longer even want the symbols of the old regime.

These symbols include Ben Ali’s political arm RCD, the former ruling party, and his right-hand men such as Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannoushi and six other members of the newly-announced Cabinet.

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