By Dale McFeatters
On her way out of the country, the stories go, Tunisian first lady Leila Trebelsi stopped by the country's central bank and after a phone call or two withdrew 1.5 tons of gold to cushion her forced exile.
She and her husband, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, 74, had planned on going to France, perhaps to visit the $5.6 billion they are alleged to have stashed there. Other officials of Ben Ali's government didn't do quite as well but still they didn't do to badly. The Swiss estimated they laid away $620 million in Swiss banks before the roof fell in on their own country.
Leila Trebelsi, 53, was described as the Imelda Marcos of the Arab world, a prescient description as it turned out, because it was the first lady of the Philippines love of luxury, especially shoes, and embezzlement of the treasury that led to the fall of her husband's government.
Trebelsi was a hairdresser from a humble background who had the good judgment to marry Ben Ali a few years after he took power in a bloodless coup. It was the second marriage for both of them but this one lasted, and for good reason on her part.
Trebelsi was one of 11 children, and, once in power, Tunisians described her family and Ben Ali's family as "the mafia," although their greed and rapacity would leave even Tony Soprano gasping in admiration.
According to the Associated Press, the two families awarded themselves lucrative concessions and extorted stakes in Tunisia's industries, banks, airlines, car dealerships, Internet providers, radio and television stations and major retailers.
The average Tunisians seethed at this unchecked avarice but Ben Ali, a U.S. ally, by the way, ran a ruthless police state with one cop for every 40 citizens and, it is said, more journalists in jail than any other Arab nation.
Two events precipitated the end of the 23-year-old Ben Ali regime. In December, a university educated 26-year-old, reduced to peddling fruits and vegetables because he could find no job, had his stock confiscated by police for selling without a permit. In despair, he set himself on fire and died.
That set off waves of protests and the authorities beat the protesters and shot 78 of them but apparently without the old enthusiasm.
The other event was WikiLeaks disclosure of a cable from the U.S. ambassador in Tunis describing a dinner at the opulent seaside mansion of the Ben Alis' daughter, Nesrine, 24, where frozen yogurt was flown in from St. Tropez by private jet.
That revelation further fueled the riots and last Friday the Ben Alis fled. His associates left behind couldn't distance themselves from him fast enough, and he was formally expelled from the RCD, the ruling political party that Ben Ali had founded.
The plan was for them to head to France, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy refused to allow their plane to land. The fugitive couple wound up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where another ousted dictator, Uganda's Idi Amin, lived out his days.
Daughter Nesrine and son-in-law Sakhr were last seen at the Disneyland hotel in Paris, where other members of the extended family seemed to be gathering. Meanwhile, Tunisian mobs burned the mansions and sports cars they left behind.
Some see the ouster of Ben Ali as a positive step for the Arab world, perhaps heralding the end of the entrenched dictatorships that prevail there. Others fear the victorious protesters have only cleared the way for another set of thieves.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer of Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com).