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.

Amine Landoulsi/AP
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.

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.

“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.

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.

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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