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News from Tunisia: Regime's excesses on display inside Tunisian mansion

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  • Zafar Khan
    Regime s excesses on display inside Tunisian mansion By Sudarsan Raghavan Washington Post Foreign Service Sunday, January 30, 2011
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 30, 2011
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      Regime's excesses on display inside Tunisian mansion
      By Sudarsan Raghavan
      Washington Post Foreign Service
      Sunday, January 30, 2011


      HAMMAMET, TUNISIA - They arrive every day at this white mansion overlooking the Mediterranean, parents with their children, old men with canes, young men in leather jackets, among the many Tunisians on a pilgrimage to vent their anger at a corrupt government.

      It's been two weeks since mobs overran this opulent house, amid protests that have spread across the Arab world. Neighbors said it was occupied by a nephew of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

      Today, the infinity pool is filled with debris. The 30-foot floor-to-ceiling windows are shattered. The smell of charred wood wafts through the air as scores of visitors see the luxurious lifestyles of their former elites for the first time.

      "The smell of fire is also the smell of freedom and happiness," declared Sami Soukah, a retired driver, as he looked up at the carcass of a crystal chandelier. "They stole the people's money. We are not sorry that this happened."

      No matter what happens next in this tense North African nation - free and fair elections? Military rule? Dictatorship or democracy? - Tunisians appear certain they have rid themselves of Ben Ali and his family. Just as high unemployment and low wages triggered their rebellion, many say, so too did the government's blatant corruption and excesses. Tunisia's government has issued an international arrest warrant for Ben Ali and his family, asking Interpol to apprehend them on allegations of theft and taking money out of the country illegally.

      The graffiti scrawled on the walls of the mansion spoke the fury of a long-neglected population.

      "The Rich got Richer. The Poor got Poorer," someone wrote on a wall in a marble-tiled bedroom, which once had a Jacuzzi.

      "You killed the people, Ben Ali," someone else wrote in the hallway overlooking the landscaped garden, with palm trees and a fountain.

      During his 23-year rule, Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, were often referred to as the Ceausescus, the Romanian dictator and his wife who were executed as their repressive and corrupt regime collapsed. The Ben Ali and Trabelsi families controlled a vast number of companies and real estate holdings, sometimes taken by force. Even distant relatives seemed above the law.

      Tunisia was their personal treasure chest. On the Internet, rumors abounded of Leila Trabelsi trying to sell a Tunisian island, or seeking to shut down a highly regarded private school so that she could promote her own school. Ben Ali's son-in-law, Mohammad Sakher el-Materi, was said to own many of the nation's luxury car dealerships, among other lucrative businesses.

      The family got whatever it coveted - cash, services, land, even a yacht that someone else owned - according to the anti-corruption watchdog group Transparency International and U.S. Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks last year.

      In a cable from 2009, then-U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec noted that members of Ben Ali's family "are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians" because of their extravagant lifestyles.

      "The excesses of the Ben Ali family are growing," warned Godec.

      Lavish lifestyle

      This whitewashed resort town was an epicenter of such excesses. In interviews, residents spoke of Ben Ali relatives throwing lavish parties and driving Ferraris and other luxury cars.

      Others described how relatives refused to pay to enter nightclubs or for restaurant bills. In one story circulating around town, a Trabelsi relative started a brawl in a nightclub. The next morning, the policemen who arrested him were fired.

      Neighbors of a villa belonging to Leila Trabelsi's brother, Belhassen, said they once received his electricity bill by mistake. The bill for that huge house? Zero dinars.

      According to another cable, Godec witnessed a night of excess at Materi's spacious house nestled along a public beach in Hammamet. The house was filled with ancient artifacts, including Roman columns, frescoes and a lion's head from which water poured into the pool, Godec wrote.

      In the compound, Materi kept a large tiger in a cage. Godec wrote that the scene reminded him of Saddam Hussein's son Uday's lion cage in Baghdad.

      That night they feasted on a lavish dinner of a dozen dishes; dessert included ice cream and frozen yogurt flown in from St. Tropez on Materi's private jet. During dinner, Materi expressed interest in owning a McDonald's franchise in Tunisia.

      "Throughout the evening, El Materi often struck the Ambassador as demanding, vain and difficult. He is clearly aware of his wealth and power, and his actions reflected little finesse," the cable read. "He repeatedly pointed out the lovely view from his home and frequently corrected his staff, issued orders and barked reprimands."

      Some residents said that after Ben Ali fled on Jan. 14, mobs entered Materi's house. Among their first acts: They killed the tiger.

      Like the Berlin Wall

      Despite the stories and the rumors, most residents did not know how lavishly Ben Ali's family lived. So on a recent day at the ransacked mansion of Ben Ali's nephew, Kais Ben Ali, the gasps were audible.

      "Unbelievable," said Fathi Gdara, a plumber, as he entered the large bedroom with a view of the pool and the Mediterranean. He shook his head, then added: "It's the money of the people."

      Some of the visitors picked up a piece of glass or marble to keep.

      "It's a souvenir to remind us the dark days are over," said Sadok Khayati. "For us, it's like a piece of the Berlin Wall."

      Fawzia Ouji came with her 7-year-old daughter, Maram. They walked up the spiral staircase, its railing ripped out, and went from room to room. Ouji, too, picked up a piece of marble.

      When they get home, she said, she will tell her daughter "that the people were blind, that we didn't know the real situation. She has to learn from this, to have an idea about the past in order to avoid it again in the future."

      As they walked down the staircase, they passed another piece of graffiti on the wall. "Power to the People," it read.

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      When the guards came to release Adem Boukadida with 20 other men from the white-walled compound of Tunisia's Mornghouia prison, just outside the capital, Tunis, they told him: "Go and get your stuff." That's all.

      The 30-year-old graduate of Al-Azhar University, which the old regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali regarded with suspicion for its Islamist links, could barely walk.

      The stories of men like Boukadida, finally released last Thursday, fuel the continuing anger against those in the interim government who were closely associated with the Ben Ali regime. The stories are of brutality, corruption and everyday cruelty at the hands of his police state. These accounts are at last emerging uncensored on television and radio and in the press.

      Boukadida, a short, stocky man with a full beard, was trying to escape arrest when pushed from a second-floor window by police in his home town of Sousse in November. "Two policemen had been shot in my neighbourhood, so they rounded up all of the young men," he explained after his release. "I had been in prison before for 11 months in 2007. I'd been a student in Egypt and returned to Tunisia. They said I had been inciting people to go to Iraq to join the resistance."

      It is a charge he denies, but it laid him open to the attentions of a regime that specialised in arbitrary violence. "I did not want to be caught again because I knew what would happen. So I fled."

      The police caught up with him. On 16 November, four carloads of them arrived at his parents' house while they were celebrating Eid and chased him up the stairs. Boukadida tried to escape out of a window to where he could reach a nearby balcony. A policeman pushed him from behind as he tried to escape. He fell 10 metres to the ground. He unravels bandages to show his injuries. On his right wrist there is a still fresh scar from where a bone broke through the skin. There is another scar below one knee and a deep gash above one eye that has healed into a livid scar.

      He was released from hospital on 8 January into the hands of the feared Sûreté d'Etat — Tunisia's security police. During his interrogation, his sternum was cracked with a baton and with fists.

      Boukadida knows the name of the man who pushed him out of the window: Khalid. And the name of the officer who beat him too: Ridal Djamal.

      Reading his file, it seems impossible that Boukadida, a clothes seller, could have committed the acts of which he was accused. It was alleged he organised a terrorist cell with others in Sousse to make bomb attacks, but at the time of the supposed offences he was in a hospital bed in Sahloul, as a result of his fall. The witness testimony against him was a crude fabrication.

      Battered and bruised, Boukadida signed a confession, although he could not write, marking it with his thumb-print. But the police had not counted on his lawyer, who secured a statement from the hospital stating where Boukadida was – and the condition he was in – during the time he was supposed to be plotting his acts of terrorism.

      Still he was not released. "They kept me in a cell. A large room with almost 60 other people. I needed to clean my wounds, but I could not. The toilet was a hole in the floor. I asked for a proper toilet because …" he indicates the injury to his leg means he cannot bend down.

      Then came the Jasmine Revolution. Inside the prison no one told the inmates what was happening outside. "We could hear the shooting but we didn't know about the flight of Ben Ali." Sometimes, he says, they could smell teargas. Finally a guard told the men what had happened: the president had gone.

      Boukadida says some inmates cried and some applauded, some sang, and some danced. "It was the end of the dictatorship. I would have danced too, if I could," he recalls.

      But now there was almost no food. The guards brought the prisoners bread twice a day. And in an act of spite over the regime's collapse, Boukadida says, men were taken to the prison's central courtyard to be beaten.

      Tunisia's new government has said it will pay compensation to prisoners who suffered under the 23-year regime of Ben Ali. But Boukadida is anxious that those who tortured him should be brought to account, which he believes will happen.

      "I'm sure those who did this to me will be brought to justice and made to account for their criminal acts."

      After days of demonstrations demanding the cleansing of the new government of those ministers associated with Ben Ali, on Friday the interim prime minister appeared to pledge that he would quit politics after elections in the near future. Mohamed Ghannouchi said: "My role is to bring my country out of this temporary phase and even if I am nominated I will refuse it and leave politics."

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      By Kim Sengupta in Tunis
      Saturday, 22 January 2011


      Even as Tunisians celebrate the fall of totalitarianism after 23 years, for many there is a shadow looming over their new-found freedom – the apprehension of rising religious fundamentalism and its effect on human rights.

      Yesterday saw the first Friday prayers in Tunis since the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali last week.

      As worshippers left their prayers, outside some of the mosques were groups of men espousing conservative Islam, distributing leaflets warning against unbelievers.

      With Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi yesterday promising to quit politics after fresh elections, citizens are pleased at the prospect of a government with "clean hands" but are unsure whose hands they will be.

      The Ben Ali regime presented itself as a bulwark against terrorism, making Muslim fundamentalists the target of its draconian laws. But now the religious parties say that they, too, should be allowed to play a part in the new political landscape that has emerged since the collapse last week of Mr Ben Ali's rule.

      Ennahda, or "Awakening", an Islamist movement, was banned under Mr Ben Ali with its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi (unrelated to the current Prime Minister), exiled in London. Now, as its members take part in daily protests in the centre of Tunis, the party is seeking to be legalised.

      Hamida Raidi, who was involved in a heated debate during a march after speaking out against political Islam, said: "We don't want to exchange one repressive government for another. We have seen what Islamist parties do when they start influencing politics. This will be bad for Tunisia and especially bad for women."

      Hamid Jebali, a senior Ennahda official, blames a variety of people, from secularists with agendas in Tunisia to the Western media, for presenting a false image of Islamists. "It is the newspapers and television in Europe and America who are trying to frighten people by saying that 'the Islamists are rising'," he said. "But we are not the Taliban, or al-Qa'ida or Ahmadinejad. We shall submit to the vote of the people when the time comes."

      Ennahda believes that political momentum is on its side. Rachid Ghannouchi said he will return to his homeland, after two decades, at the opportune moment while the movement's deputy leader, Ali Laraidh, has held talks with the Prime Minister over the possibility of being part of a government of national unity.

      "To do that, we need to have our party legalised," said Mr Laraidh, who was imprisoned for 14 years under the old regime for "plotting against the state".

      The belief that Islam should play a part in shaping the new political landscape has some unexpected adherents in Tunisian society. Sahar Ben Younis, 20, a student dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, said: "We are not saying that there should be things like burkas here. But Ben Ali put a lot of people who held the true values of Islam in prison and we need people like them in politics."

      However, Samir al-Taibi, a member of the opposition PDP party and a trade union activist, urged caution: "Ennahda say they are not extremist, they say that they believe in democracy and tolerance. Well, let us seen their manifesto, let us see how they will react if someone criticises fundamentalist Islam. We would also like to see their positions on armed struggle and Islam. There are a lot of questions to be answered."

      Those espousing armed struggle have urged Tunisians not to be "seduced by democracy". Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb said this week: "This is the time to go to training camps and wage the decisive battle against the Jews, the Crusaders and their agents."

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      The street vendor who set himself alight, sparking an uprising which swept away 23 years of dictatorship in Tunisia and triggered protests across North Africa, had been beaten down by years of poverty and oppression by the authorities, his family told The Independent last night.

      Mohamed Bouazizi – whose desperate act, copied in countries including Algeria and Egypt, has become a symbol of injustice and oppression – had lost his land, his living and had been humiliated by local officials.

      In an interview yesterday at his home, his mother Mannoubia said she was proud of her son and of his role in changing the regime. His cries for help had been ignored by banks and officials, his family said. "The government drove him to do what he did; they never gave him a chance. We are poor and they thought we had no power," his mother said. "My son is lost, but look what is happening, how many people are now getting involved."

      What made Mr Bouazizi's desperation and sense of hopelessness so real to those who were to rise up afterwards was that it mirrored many of their experiences. The 26-year-old lived in Sidi Bouzid, in the poor interior of the country, which is economically and culturally different from the capital Tunis and the northern coastal areas where then president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and their venal courtiers enjoyed a life of opulence.

      Mr Bouazizi had passed his baccalaureate but had found no skilled job in a region suffering from chronic underinvestment; the family land had been taken back by the bank, and his only source of income, from selling fruit and vegetables from a cart, was about to be lost because he could not get the required permit from the local council.

      The act which drove Mr Bouazizi over the edge, it is claimed, was the humiliation of being slapped on the face in public by a female official of the municipality, Feyda Hamdi, during an altercation when she had attempted to impound his cart. Leila, 24, one of Mohamed's six siblings, acknowledged that the blow from an official, especially a woman, had undoubtedly shamed his brother. But what happened was the culmination of a series of events which had made him, and the family, feel they were the victims of a cruel and unfeeling system.

      "It was always difficult. The worst thing was what happened to the land," she said. "We owned it with our neighbours and we grew olives and almonds. It was earning good money, but then things turned bad for a lot of people, our sales went down and the bank seized our land. I went with Mohamed, we appealed to the bank, we appealed to the governor, but no one listened. Other families had the same problem; people just ignored us."

      Asma Gharbi, a hydraulic engineer who lives nearby, said: "Just look at this town, how everything is falling apart, there is no money. I have lived in Tunis and I can tell you the high-up people there don't care. Everyone is fed-up here, but Mohamed did something that forced people to take notice."

      At the municipality headquarters, a junior official, Hassan Raidi, admitted shortcomings of the past. "But we were all afraid of Ben Ali and his people. So no one could make any criticism. Now things will change."

      After his argument with Ms Hamdi, Mr Bouazizi walked off, came back with a can of patrol and set himself alight in front of the regional governor's residence. That was on 17 December. There were protests locally, unheeded calls for an investigation and for officials to be held to account. But there was very little wider publicity in Tunisia's censored and cowed media.

      "The unions got involved, teachers, lawyers, doctors, all sections of civil society, and set up a Popular Resistance Committee to back the people of Sidi Bouzid and back the uprising. The uprising continued for 10 days in Sidi Bouzid, but with no support from outside," said Lazhar Gharbi, a head teacher.

      But then the news of the self-immolation by the fruit seller began to spread through the online social network – Facebook, Twitter and blogs, raising an outcry unexpected in scale for something that happened in a small town. Mr Bouazizi was moved to a hospital in Tunis. Among the visitors was the president, who declared an inquiry would be held. He said Sidi Bouzid and surrounding areas would get grants and jobs. But the mood in the area was one of anger, fuelled by aggressive action by the police. After Mr Bouazizi died on 4 January, his funeral was attended by several hundred people chanting "Farewell Mohamed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today, others will weep tomorrow for what they did to you."

      Since then Tunisia has changed, with Ben Ali forced into exile by protesters, many of whom cried out the name of Mohamed Bouazizi. He has been mentioned in blogs written by some of the others who burned themselves to death in Algeria, Egypt and Mauritania. Street clashes continue between protesters and police, as the country faces an uncertain future.

      Sitting at the family home, a three roomed house, surrounded by her children, 48-year-old Mannoubia talked about how her son's death has politicised her: "I now know how Ben Ali had been stealing from the country. How the relations of Leila Trabelsi have been stealing. We do not want them back. But the situation is not just bad in Tunisia. I remember my husband used to talk about Libya, poor people there suffered as well. She continued: "I have a lot of people who come up to me now to say it is not just me who has lost a son, but the whole village that has lost a son. I am proud of what he did. I would like to go up to Tunis and take a look at these demonstrations. It is good to know that my son had played a part in changing things."

      Whether any real changes come to Tunisia through the "Jasmine Revolution" remains to be seen. In Sidi Bouzid's central square a group of young men sit around on a wall with no job to go to.

      Walid Ben Sanai, who trained as an engineer, sees no change for the better in sight. "Ben Ali has gone, but the government ministers are still the same. We are not seeing any real improvement, and unless there is some real improvement there will be real trouble.

      "But we think about Mohamed Bouazizi. I hope he will be remembered."

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