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01.17.11

Laila Trabelsi: Wife of Tunisia's Deposed Dictator

She ran her family like a mob, taking over Tunisia’s economy and getting rid of anyone in her way. Issandr El Amrani on the former hairdresser said to have fled with a ton of gold.

She was a coiffeur who affected the airs of a queen, and while she took her family from rags to riches, as it were, many in Tunisia blamed first lady Laila Trabelsi for taking the country in the opposite direction. In the riots that led to the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali last week, Trabelsi's name was an epithet on the demonstrators' tongues, her image an incitement to violence.

"She and her family was [sic] the focus point of all the hatred, all the popular anger in the last weeks," said Fatih Khamchi, a political activist in Tunis. "She ran this incredible network that, like a plague, contaminated the business world. This means that today, in that world, there is no one beyond reproach."

In what some newspapers dub " the jasmine revolution," the president and his family fled the country last week, after almost a month of popular protests sparked by a desperate fruit seller who set himself on fire in protest after police confiscated his cart. The departure of the loathed Laila caused widespread joy in Tunisia. On Twitter, one Tunisian wrote mockingly that the former president's wife was now busy writing a two-part autobiography, titled: "1. From the hairdryer to the corridors of power, 2: From power to the pavement.'"

The French newspaper Le Monde yesterday reported that she took a ton and a half of gold from Tunisia's central bank as she fled with her husband. According to the newspaper, Laila went to the Bank of Tunisia to pick up the gold bars. When the director of the bank initially refused, she called her husband, who got the bank to hand over the gold. (The bank denies this.) After taking the gold, they flew to Saudi Arabia.

Gallery: Dictators' Wives

During Ben Ali's reign, the corruption undertaken by his wife was "staggering" and amounted to a "state capture," said a prominent Tunisian businessman who didn't want to be named.

That a former hairdresser, a parvenu, would rise to first lady was something the Tunisian elite loved to point out, and during the demonstrations, protesters complained that the country was brought to ruin by "a mere hairdresser."

After dating a string of powerful men during the 1980s, Laila met Ben Ali, a politician with ambitions to match hers. Tunisians liked to gossip that he set her up in a villa while at the same time conducting an affair with the niece and caretaker of the ailing president at the time, Habib Bourguiba. Once Ben Ali seized power in 1987, he abandoned this liaison and, in 1992, married Laila.

“She ran this incredible network that, like a plague, contaminated the business world.”

The ambitious first lady quickly established her own powerbase, sidelining the family of Ben Ali's first wife, mercilessly shoving aside anyone perceived to have slighted her or stood in the way of her family's hostile takeover of the Tunisian economy.

Laila even went into business with her friend, Soha Arafat, widow of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, as documented by a U.S. Embassy cable published by WikiLeaks. But after the two women fell out, Arafat was kicked out of the country.

In addition to Laila, two people were key figures in the Trabelsi clan: her older brother Belhassan, seen by many as the second-most-powerful man in Tunisia after Ben Ali, and her nephew Imed, whose brutal tactics and connections with organized crime made him the clan's chief enforcer.

Laila herself ran the family business like a cross between a mafia don and a marriage maker. Conscious of the Trabelsi's humble background, she cemented alliances by marrying her relatives to more established families from the Tunisian business world and bourgeoisie. She meddled in the affairs of the country's elite like Joan Collins once did on the soap opera Dynasty: forever plotting and scheming to get her way.

She forced Belhassan to divorce his wife and marry the daughter of Hedi Jilani, a powerbroker who headed an influential businessmen's association. (There were later rumors that he had been married off again to Soha Arafat, while the two women were still close.)

But her triumph was the marriage of her daughter Nesrine to Sakhr al-Materi, the scion of an influential family whose meteoric rise to power in the business world made him seem like Ben Ali's potential heir. Al-Materi was said to be seeing another girl at the time, but after police contacted her, she fled to France.

Al-Materi, who set up an Islamic bank and a radio station, was said to be nurturing some of Tunisia's Islamists—observers believed that al-Materi's pious public persona was meant to appease the religiously conservative opposition.

Belhassan, for his part, had a finger in every pie, manipulating the stock market and speculating in real estate. Kathago Airlines, one of his ventures, apparently got privileged treatment over Tunis Air, the state airline, at Tunis airport, with spare parts stripped from the national carrier to augment his fleet. Belhassan also took over one of Tunisia's last major independent banks.

Imed, the coarser of the two, is best known for his thuggish habits and love of expensive yachts. A few years ago, he reportedly had a multimillion-dollar boat stolen from Corsica and delivered to Sidi Bou Said, a postcard-perfect village by the sea near Tunis. Unfortunately for Imed, it turned out that the yacht belonged to Bruno Roger, the head of the prestigious investment bank Lazard, who used his French government connections to put pressure on the regime over the theft. In Tunisia, no one dared to speak publicly about the embarrassing affair but Laila was reportedly unhappy with her husband for not defending Imed.

As Ben Ali's health began to falter, with rumors spreading that he was battling cancer, the president became more prone to temper tantrums, and often lashed out at the rapaciousness of his wife's family. But Laila's power was so deeply entrenched that she could give government ministers orders to keep her husband in the dark.

According to Nicolas Beau and Catherine Graciet, two French journalists who in 2009 published a scathing tell-all account of the Tunisian first lady's rise to power, titled "La Regente de Carthage," she asked two key regime figures—the foreign minister and the president's chief of staff—to pass any information through her. "The president is going through a depressive phase due to his tireless work for the nation," she told them. "I therefore ask you to refrain from burdening him with news and information that could aggravate his condition. You may… refer news to me first. I'll know how to present it to him."

That she filtered all information to the president may explain why he was so slow to realize the gravity of the situation.

Even as their world fell apart around them, she thought she was in control.

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer. His work regularly appears in The Economist, Foreign Policy, The National and other publications. He writes a weekly column for Egypt's leading independent daily, al-Masri al-Youm, and blogs at www.arabist.net.