It is the official journal of the European Union (EU) dated October 28, 2022 which announces: the freezing of the assets of Mohamed Trabelsi, Kais Ben Ali, Hamda Ben Ali, Najmeddine Ben Ali, Najet Ben Ali, Imed and Naoufel Letaïef, all close relatives and allies of former President Ben Ali, are up. A predictable decision, but which created surprise in Tunis, where this affair had been somewhat forgotten.
[Série] Tunisia: what has become of the figures of the Trabelsi clan?
The fall of the Ben Ali regime in 2011 immediately raised the question of the assets and fortune, supposedly acquired unduly, of the family and relatives of the ousted president. At the time, we were talking about crazy sums and tracking evaporated billions. A legitimate reaction when we know that the popular uprising that swept away the power in place was driven by the fight against inequality.
Procedures remained ineffective
But the amounts advanced, still approximately, have not been found, let alone returned when they have been located, especially abroad. Many remember that organisms as Sherpa had contributed to the identification of some of these assets, which will be frozen in EU countries and Switzerland.
The financial center of Tunis has launched restitution procedures, but they have had no effect. As early as 2012, a magistrate revealed the flaws in the system by pointing out the poor match between Tunisian laws and those in force in Europe. Not to mention the letters in Arabic sent to European counterparts and which have mostly remained a dead letter. But the main procedural obstacle was the lack of convincing documents proving that these funds had been ill-gotten.
Fall of Ben Ali: the day Tunisia changed
Looted property, as they are called in Tunisia, most likely stems from a tenacious urban legend. They certainly exist, but they are ultimately well hidden. These assets, in addition to the money claimed from companies that benefited from the generosity of the former regime, as provided for in the penal reconciliation bill, were to be the source of financing for regional infrastructure projects.
“A lot of confusion”
It was also an electoral promise and a priority for President Kaïs Saïed, who is struggling to put in place his new socio-political system, which reverses the circuit of decisions by favoring those emanating from the base. In this perspective, the use of the assets of the former leaders for regional development could have taken on a moral aspect if the process had succeeded. But the system put in place to ensure the restitution of these assets has proved insufficient, especially at the diplomatic level.
Tunisia: the truth about Ben Ali’s flight
“There is a lot of confusion around these assets”, specifies a lawyer, who recalls that in Tunisia several cases have been judged, some have been closed de facto following the death of the defendant, others have not resulted in prosecution. The lawyer adds that the transitional justice experiment carried out between 2014 and 2019 had made the management of these cases even more complex. “Today, he specifies, it is a question of assets present only on the territory of the European Union, Switzerland is not concerned, contrary to what colleagues claim. »
In the facts, Switzerland has always been a safe haven for former rulers. This is also the case for certain Gulf countries, where looted property could potentially be found. But their governments have never pronounced on such matters, if indeed they have been seized of them, which is not even certain.
The flop of prosecutions at the local level also shows that the file is not a priority, the authorities first seeking to finish with the leaders of the previous legislature. It also conceals that of assets abroad, which the president, without referring to any judgment, considers as “property of the Tunisian people”. Some recall that the commission responsible for the restitution of funds looted abroad, created in 2020, has never sat.
Tunisia: where did Ben Ali’s loot go?
If the commission contented itself with statements that remained unimplemented, the EU’s decision did not fail to be exploited by political leaders. Like one of the leaders of the nationalist left, Mongi Rahoui, who lets it be known that he estimates the value of these assets at 15 billion dinars. An astronomical figure which allows him to give himself visibility in the pre-election period. He could also revise these amounts, since the EU intends to operate another lifting of the freeze and that Nesrine and Halima, the youngest daughters of Ben Ali, won their case with the administrative court regarding their assets.
The conditions are precisely conducive to populist arguments: the state coffers are empty, the country is going through an unprecedented economic crisis, with shortages which are reviving social demands. In this context, the EU decision caused a brief diversion but no one is fooled. The seven people concerned are mostly nephews of Ben Ali, little known and who have done more in racketeering than in business. “Small fry without real consistency in the eyes of elders of the seraglio”, reports a former activist of the “manech msamhine” (“We do not forgive”) movement who opposed a botched reconciliation as envisaged by Béji Caïd Essebsi, Kaïs Saïed’s predecessor in the presidency.