Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted Tunisian dictator being tried in absentia today for corruption, would like to clear up a little a misconception. He didn't flee Tunis on Jan. 14 as mobs fed up with the corruption of his family and furious at the murder of demonstrators were closing in. He was just running a little errand.
"I was duped into leaving," Mr. Ben Ali said in a statement released from Saudi Arabia, where he is in exile. He insists that he was simply escorting his wife Leila Trabelsi and the rest of his family to Saudi Arabia for their own safety and intended to head straight back home. What happened? His plane left Saudi Arabia without him, "disobeying my instructions," Ben Ali complained in a statement today.
Given proceedings in Tunis today, that was probably for Ben Ali's own good. In January, enraged crowds looted and burned many of his family's palatial homes and now he's wanted in Tunisia on charges ranging from drug trafficking to money laundering to illegally trading in antiquities. Though his lawyers said they'd like to delay the trial to give them more time to convince Ben Ali to return and face the charges, the likelihood that he will ever face justice is vanishingly slim.
The trial of Ben Ali is likely to be followed by many more in Tunisia, and in neighboring Egypt, where corruption investigations against deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, his family, and cronies are gathering steam. Further out, the rebels in Libya are promising trials of Muammar Qaddafi and regime figures if they win their war, as are the democracy protesters in Syria and their supporters.
Though these sorts of trials are often held up as warnings to future dictators, as sending a signal that despotic and corrupt ways of doing business won't be tolerated any more, they don't have that kind of effect on their own. And they come at a time when Tunisia and Egypt are grappling with poor economic conditions and trying to build democratic and accountable systems.
Ben Ali in his statement referred to his trial as a "masquerade" and alleged it was being used to distract Tunisians for the serious and ongoing problems at home. He might be right. It's far easier to beat up on the fallen king in court then it is to fix the mess he left behind.
When Indonesia's dictator Suharto was pushed from office in 1998, a slew of trials for his friends and family ensued. As with Tunisia under Ben Ali, the crony-capitalism of Indonesia saw Suharto, his wife, and his children, cut into dozens of businesses as a form of protection. Suharto's son Tommy went to jail, as did Mohammed "Bob" Hasan, his golfing partner and bag man.
Of course, those prosecutions didn't end corruption in Indonesia. Most of the people who benefited from Suharto's system were left untouched, and many of them are among Indonesia's most powerful people today.
Will that be the case 10 years from now in Tunisia and Egypt? Probably. Could the two countries really clean out the stables? Maybe. Will the trials of a few top people do the trick? No.