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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.

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Ben Ali’s personal wealth is even harder to gauge, with most of his assets believed to be stashed abroad, says acting finance minister Slim Besbes. Many countries that froze his assets last year have been slow to unfreeze them – the European Union only did so last month – while other legal challenges remain.

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The two largest known concentrations of Ben Ali wealth outside Tunisia are around $65 million in Switzerland and $28 million in an account under Mrs. Trabelsi’s name at Lebanon’s central bank, says Mr. Besbes. But while governments are cooperating, Ben Ali and his family's lawyers are fighting back.

Ben Ali’s Beirut-based lawyer, Akram Azoury, argues that a March 2011 seizure of his client's assets was illegal and says Ben Ali has no assets in his name outside Tunisia. Those in the country “are limited, to my knowledge, to his personal residence and a bank account whose value I cannot estimate, contrary to what Tunisian authorities have told the public,” he said by e-mail.

Big needs

Meanwhile, Tunisia relies heavily on foreign money. Last month it borrowed $500 million each from the World Bank and African Development Bank.

The government has also begun liquidating regime assets: 1.2 billion dinar ($776 million) generated from asset sales helped pay for a 2.5 billion dinar ($1.6 billion) increase in this year’s budget.

Latest on the block are thousands of personal items, including cars, jewelry, and fine art, which went on sale this week at a ritzy hotel near Tunis. To oversee things, the finance ministry tapped Mr. Hamaied, an old hand in commerce.

One morning earlier this month, Hamaied and Mr. Bouzidi, the car expert, were at the national guard facility in Tunisia, giving a preview of cars to the buyer’s agent. There was Ben Ali’s Maybach town car, with massage seats in back, a mini-fridge stocked with Evian, and a yard of leg room. Nearby was a black Aston Martin bearing a small plaque that read, “Handbuilt in England for Sakher El Materi.”

The scout was drawn to the BMW, seized from a Trabelsi. Hamaied popped the hood so he could photograph the big V-12 engine. The odometer showed 2,587 kilometers (about 1,600 miles).

“They’re all like that; these cars didn’t roll much – just between La Marsa and Hammamet,” Hamaied said, naming chic beachside towns near Tunis. Then he proposed a test drive. The men got in, Hamaied gunned the engine, and the BMW tore down the runway as the needle shot to 100 kilometers per hour (about 60 miles per hour).

Authorities hope the sale, which will last at least a month, will generate about $13 million. The government says the proceeds will be spent on development projects.

Ultimately, however, Tunisia has more work ahead to revitalize the economy, says Antonio Nucifora, lead economist on Tunisia for the World Bank. It must reform laws such as those governing foreign investment and labor, cut red tape, and combat a lingering penchant for cronyism.

“At present it is connections that make the system work,” he says. “They need to change from a system based on privileges and connections to one based on merit and competition.”

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