Economic woes stem partly from last year’s revolution, which spooked tourists and foreign investors while the eurozone crisis hobbled key trading partners. But the roots of trouble go deeper, to a regime that spent years neglecting rural regions and letting unemployment rise while amassing great wealth for itself.
“Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage,” wrote then-US Ambassador Robert F. Godec in a June 2008 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, describing an extended family seen as “the nexus of Tunisian corruption.”
A year later, Mr. Godec got a taste of regime opulence when Ben Ali’s son-in-law and heir-apparent, Sakher El Materi, invited him for dinner at his seaside villa. Godec’s July 2009 cable notes an infinity pool, ice cream flown in from St. Tropez, and a pet tiger named Pasha.
Ben Ali and most of his family fled Tunisia in January 2011 as protests brought down his regime. Two months later, then-interim president Fouad Embazaa ordered the seizure of assets belonging to 114 top regime figures, including Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi.
It’s unclear how much the assets – from cars, yachts, and palaces to major stakes in Tunisian companies – are worth. One estimate last September by a government commission put their total value at around $13 billion.