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Tunisia seeks gold in former dictator's assets

Tunisia has been aggressively pursuing the assets of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his associates, seizing bank accounts, luxury homes, and one-of-a-kind luxury cars.

By Correspondent / December 26, 2012

Visitors wander around a display of art that once belonged to the family of ousted Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali at an auction in the Tunis suburb of Gammarth on Sunday. Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali kicked off viewing of thousands of luxury items once owned by the ousted leader and his family on the eve of a public auction, in a bid to raise millions of euros for government coffers.

Amine Landoulsi/AP

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Tunis, Tunisia

On a crisp December morning in Tunis, a finance ministry official named Mohamed Hamaied was demonstrating the horsepower of maroon V-12 BMW on the runway of a national guard airfield. Beside him sat an agent for a potential buyer.

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“You know, this is the same runway that Ben Ali fled from,” remarked another passenger, automotive expert Mourad Bouzidi, from the back seat.

The BMW is among the seized possessions of deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his inner circle that the government is selling to help fill depleted treasury coffers. But the sale of regime assets, which are often hard to track down and obtain, is not going to be enough. Long-term prosperity needs real reforms.

In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the fall of dictators has triggered a scramble for cash as new governments struggle to restore stability amid high expectations and damaged economies.

In Tunisia, high unemployment has fueled labor strikes and rioting, which in turn provoke political squabbling. Last month, clashes in the rural town of Siliana between stone-throwing protestors and police – who fired birdshot – prompted some opposition politicians to demand Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s resignation.

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.”

Tigers and French ice cream

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.

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