Greed of the Tunisian president's wife that drove a nation onto the streets to start a revolution
Last updated at 6:19 PM on 16th January 2011
- Security forces exchange gunfire with protesters in buildings
- Britons' gun terror after armed mob besieges coach
President Ben Ali's wife Leila: She was dubbed the Imelda Marcos of the Arab world
Tunisia's angry protestors are shedding no tears for the downfall of ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's greedy wife Leila.
The former hairdresser was likened to the Philippines' Imelda Marcos of the Arab world because of her love of wealth and its trappings.
While Ben Ali, 74, was granted refuge in Saudi Arabia, his wife, more than 20 years her husband's junior, was at first thought to be holed up in Dubai - a destination she is said to know well through shopping trips.
The woman who came from a humble background, was branded 'The Regent of Carthage' for her power behind the throne and her love of money, luxury cars and opulent homes.
This is why so much of the anger on the streets was directed at the family who were known as 'The Mafia.'
Looters sick of the family's nepotism filmed themselves on mobile phones destroying the family's expensive cars at one of their villas and riding motorbikes across the manicured laws.
Their two daughters have fled to the Disneyland Hotel in Paris, where they are holed up in £300-a-night VIP suites.
Nesrine Ben Ali, 24, and her sister Cyrine are under guard there while their father Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali is being given sanctuary in Saudi Arabia.
But yesterday the French government said members of the ex-President’s family would be expelled.
Much of the corrupt family’s £3.5billion fortune is thought to be banked in France, the former colonial power in Tunisia.
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Downfall: President Ben Ali and second wife Leila who loved the trappings of wealth
Good life: Nesrine Ben Ali, 24, at Disneyland. She flew luxury foods to her beachside mansion by private jet and her playboy husband kept a pet tiger called Pasha, which he fed prime cuts of beef.
Pregnant Nesrine’s opulent lifestyle with husband Sakhr, 30, who is with her at Disneyland, was revealed by WikiLeaks and caused her to be likened to hated Queen Marie Antoinette, who was guillotined in the French Revolution.
Nesrine flew luxury foods to her beachside mansion by private jet and her playboy husband kept a pet tiger called Pasha, which he fed prime cuts of beef.
The descriptions led to riots, forcing the entire family to flee.
The Ben Ali sisters first headed for their embassy in Paris but were forced to leave when expatriate Tunisians started demonstrating outside.
With a retinue of servants and bodyguards, the sisters were last night staying at the Castle Club, a series of private rooms and suites inside the Disneyland Hotel.
A Disneyland source said: ‘The entourage is so large, people started to notice them immediately. The women look like princesses, covered in expensive jewellery. Limousines are coming and going all the time.
‘Four Tunisian bodyguards are permanently camped in the lobby of the hotel. Others wearing earpieces and presumably carrying guns are surrounding the building, scrutinising everyone who goes in and out.’
Ben Ali and Leila, 53, his second wife, had been expected to join their daughters in France but President Sarkozy refused to let them land, forcing them to head for Saudi Arabia instead.
They are now in a high-walled palace in Jeddah, guarded by soldiers. The Saudi government did not say how long they would be allowed to remain but the country has a history of hosting deposed rulers.
Ousted Ugandan dictator Idi Amin spent his final years in Jeddah and former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lived in the city for seven years after being overthrown in 1999.
Nesrine and her sister are are holed up in £300-a-night VIP suites, but the French government said members of the ex-President's family would be expelled
Ben Ali has six children, all of whom will have multi-millionaire lifestyles with the money they were able to get out of Tunisia.
But they have had death threats and will need 24-hour protection for the rest of their lives.
This afternoon, there were reports of security forces in Tunis exchanging gunfire with demonstrators inside buildings.
Earlier, police arrested the head of the presidential guard and dozens of others suspected in drive-by shootings.
Relief: Holidaymakers arriving at Gatwick Airport from Tunisia are greeted by their jubilant familes
They held Ali Seriati, and several of his colleagues over accusations they had plotted against state security.
German photojournalist Lucas Mebrouk von Zabiensky, 32, of the EPA photo agency has died after being hit by a tear gas grenade in Friday's street protests.
Meanwhile, British holidaymakers fleeing from Tunisia told last night how they feared for their lives after their coach was attacked by an armed mob as they headed for the airport.
Angry rioters carrying guns surged towards the vehicle and started hammering on the sides, forcing it to halt.
The tourists were saved from harm by the bravery of their driver, who got out to calm the crowd.
Photojournalist Lucas Mebrouk von Zabiensky died after being hit by a tear gas grenade in Friday's street protests in Tunis
They described their ordeal as the unrest worsened, with squads of men shooting at random from cars after days of looting in the capital, Tunis.
Tour operators evacuated more than 2,000 British tourists yesterday, leaving -several hundred still to be brought home. Many of those are due to return home today. Around 1,000 British expatriates live in Tunisia or have holiday homes there. It is unclear how many of them are planning to leave.
The Foreign Office said consular staff, bolstered by a Rapid Deployment Team sent from London, were assisting Britons stranded in the country.
Winifred Thomas, 74, from Wigan, who landed at Manchester Airport last night after being forced to cut short her holiday, said: ‘We had been aware for some time that there was trouble but we had been told to stay in our hotel.
‘It wasn’t until we started making our way to the airport that we realised just how bad it was. The streets were full of burned-out vehicles and several buildings had been destroyed by fire. There was glass everywhere.
‘As we approached the airport we were suddenly surrounded by a huge mob, which surged towards the coach. They were hammering on the side and the driver had to stop several times to remonstrate with them. Some of them were carrying guns. I was terrified we might be dragged off.’
Retired police officer Nick Edmond, 53, was among a group of tourists who commandeered a minibus from their hotel in the resort of Hammamet.
Mr Edmond, from Cumbria, said: ‘We had to bribe the driver to take us. It was very dodgy. The streets were littered with debris and many of the villas owned by wealthy Tunisians had been set alight.
Looted: A man walks in the trashed house of Mouez Trabelsi, the nephew of the former President's wife, Leila , in Marsa, 12 miles north of Tunis
‘As we drove to the airport, we saw crowds of rioters pushing wheelbarrows full of petrol cans, obviously looking for trouble. Round a corner we saw a mob climbing a statue of the president and trying to deface it.’
The tourists were evacuated after a day of escalating violence. In Monastir, at least 42 prisoners died when fire swept through a jail. The cause of the blaze was not immediately known.
In the coastal city of Mahdia, around 1,000 prisoners were set free after a violent rebellion in which soldiers opened fire on inmates, killing at least five. The decision to unlock the cells was taken by the prison governor in an attempt to prevent further bloodshed.
Passengers arriving at Birmingham Airport on a Thomson flight from Monastir also spoke of the escalating violence, with at least 100 Tunisians believed to have been killed so far.
Angela Khalifa, 56, from Newhall, Derbyshire, who had been visiting her Tunisian husband’s family, said: ‘The banks had broken glass and the big shops were like a war zone.’
Adam Wallace, 22, a security manager from Accrington, Lancashire, said the evacuation had been well organised by the tour companies and reps.
Brave biker: A food vendor rides his cycle past an intimidating tank on the streets of Tunis today
He added: ‘I would go back to Tunisia next week if I could. The people there are fantastic and very friendly.
‘Obviously they have got underlying problems with their economy and we did feel sorry for them because now we have left they have no income.’
James Milner-Walker, 32, and April Clark, 33, both from Petersfield, Hampshire, were stranded at Tunis Airport.
James said: ‘In our hotel, we heard gunshots and the staff told us to keep away from the windows. They said it was better not to go out and we should keep the shutters down.’
Another stranded traveller, Graham Sadler, 38, from Southampton, said: ‘It was pretty hairy in the city. There were police everywhere and there was a lot of shooting going on.’
WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing website run by Julian Assange, played a role in the downfall of Tunisia’s ruling elite.
Leaked diplomatic cables from the U.S. ambassador in Tunis, describing the opulent lifestyle of President Ben Ali’s family and widespread corruption, fired up the nation’s youth and provoked the riots, which forced the President to flee.
Following the removal of Ben Ali, now in exile in Saudi Arabia, the speaker of parliament, Foued Mebazaa, took over as interim president. He said he had asked Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to form a government of national unity, with elections within 60 days.
Why a fruit and veg seller could unleash wave of revolutions
By IAN BIRRELL
It all began with the despair of one man, a young graduate unable to get a job, like so many others in his country.
Mohammed Bouazizi turned to selling fruit and veg illegally to earn some money for his family, but when the police confiscated his produce last month because he had no permit, it was all too much. He poured petrol on himself and set it alight in an unusually public protest.
The 26-year-old died earlier this month, but today he is a hero. Not just to his nation, but across the ‘gendarmerie’ states of north Africa.
For that agonising act of self-immolation sparked something remarkable: a wave of protests that, for the first time in recent memory, felled a leader in the Arab world.
Courageous protesters withstood bullets, beatings and bloodshed to oust a loathed president who had made their lives a misery while growing rich at their expense.
The grievances in Tunisia are similar to those elsewhere in north Africa: Rising prices, repression, grotesque corruption and unemployment
For all the uncertainty over what happens next, it is impossible to over-estimate the importance of this moment. Tunisia may be a small country of just ten million people, but the shock waves are being felt far away.
A clutch of ageing despots in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Jordan and Algeria will be wondering nervously if they can prevent a rising tide of anger from turning into a wave of revolutions, just as in eastern Europe in 1989. The consequences could be profound.
The Tunisian protests began in Bouazizi’s home of Sidi Bouzid, a struggling rural town that feels a long way from the tourist beaches.
The president Ben Ali responded with his usual tricks – first a brutal crackdown, then empty promises of change – as unrest spread. But Tunisians had had enough of his lies and corruption. Schools and universities were closed, adding to the numbers on the streets despite a growing death toll – far higher than the official tally of 70. Finally, on Friday, he fled with his hated wife to Saudi Arabia.
Few would have predicted such a sudden uprising. Tunisia was seen as a stable country in an unstable region, long held in the iron grip of a man who had thwarted any threat from Islamists or other rivals. But behind the images on the tourist posters lay a land of raging unemployment and repression.
Ben Ali seized power in 1987 presenting himself as a liberal democrat. Instead, as civil war exploded in neighbouring Algeria, he turned Tunisia into a nastily-efficient police state, with one police officer for every 40 adults and more journalists jailed than in any other Arab country.
At the same time he promoted secularisation, outlawing Islamic parties and banning the headscarf. Women wear jeans, young couples hold hands in the street and there are female professors of theology.
This made him a valuable ally for the West in its misguided ‘War on Terror’, allowing him to tighten the screws without fear of rebuke abroad. But as in many north African states, anger has been swelling. This is a young population – one in five are 15 to 24, they are well-educated, mix with tourists and use Facebook.
Bouazizi is a fitting symbol of the revolution. The official unemployment rate is 14 per cent but in reality it is far higher. One in three graduates are estimated to be without jobs. And while they struggle to find work, with food prices, the first family have plundered the country.
This is why so much of the anger on the streets was directed at Leila Trabelsi, the president’s second wife, whose family provoked hatred with their opulent homes and luxury cars.
One WikiLeaks cable revealed a U.S. ambassadors’s incredulity over a dinner at her son-in-law’s beachfront mansion with frozen yogurt flown in from St Tropez and a pet tiger. A second cable described how another relative stole a £2 million yacht from a French businessman.
With them gone, it is impossible to predict what comes next. The army that backed Ben Ali for so long remains a crucial force, but so far has resisted intervention.
Another hardman may take over. Already, however, the pictures of crowds in the streets have caused ripples of excitement in the region.
‘It actually happened in my lifetime,’ said one blogger. ‘An Arab nation woke up and said enough.’
The grievances in Tunisia are similar to those elsewhere in north Africa: rising prices, repression, grotesque corruption and unemployment. There have been smaller protests in Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and Algeria, and thousands were on the streets of Jordan yesterday angry at food costs.
The people of these countries know how they have stagnated under a ruling class that has consolidated power and money in a few hands. Egypt – another Western ally – seems to bear the most resemblance to Tunisia, with growing fury against a long-serving, autocratic ruler. But Libya is also volatile, an oil-rich, educated nation that has gone backwards under Gaddafi and where his sons are engaged in a power struggle over succession.
Adding to this combustible mix is the threat of Islamists. Arab autocrats, often aided by the West, have kept the lid on extremists but excluded moderate religious parties from power. Who knows what will happen when repression is lifted?
We must hope that Tunisia marks the flowering of Arab democracy and that it takes root across the region. But it could be the unleashing of darker forces.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1347626/Tunisia-riots-Presidents-wife-drove-nation-streets-start-revolution.html#ixzz1BF9KQkH0
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