For the first time in history, an Arab dictator has been overthrown by a popular revolution. On Saturday, January 15, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia—another Arab dictatorship—after a widespread uprising forced him from power after 23 years.
The trigger for the mass demonstrations was the self-immolation in front of a government building by Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate who tried to support himself as a street vendor, but had his goods taken away by the police. The deeper causes of the unexpected toppling of Ben Ali were rising food prices and 14% unemployment…and WikiLeaks.
Tunisians already thought of Ben Ali and his family as corrupt, but when WikiLeaks published secret cables from the U.S. embassy in Tunis, Tunisia, to the State Department in Washington, they could read the details of the lavish lifestyles of Ben Ali and his relatives. Living in a nation where the media was controlled by the government, they could also see how the outside world really viewed their leaders.
In a June 23, 2008, cable, U.S. ambassador Robert Godec included some blunt assessments, such as:
“The GOT’s [government of Tunisia’s] strong censorship of the press ensures that stories of familial corruption are not published. The Family's corruption remains a red line that the press cross at their own peril.”
“It is the excesses of President Ben Ali's family that inspire outrage among Tunisians. With Tunisians facing rising inflation and high unemployment, the conspicuous displays of wealth and
persistent rumors of corruption have added fuel to the fire.”
“Ben Ali's wife, Leila Ben Ali, and her extended family—the Trabelsis—provoke the greatest ire from Tunisians….Tunisians also argue that the Trabelsis strong arm tactics and flagrant abuse of the system make them easy to hate. Leila's brother Belhassen Trabelsi is the most notorious family member and is rumored to have been involved in a wide-range of corrupt schemes from the recent Banque de Tunisie board shakeup to property expropriation and extortion of bribes.”
“Ben Ali has seven siblings, of which his late brother Moncef was a known drug trafficker, sentenced in absentia to 10 years prison in the French courts.”
“Construction on an enormous and garish mansion has been underway next to the Ambassador's residence for the past year. Multiple sources have told us that the home is that of Sakhr Materi, President Ben Ali's son-in-law and owner of Zitouna Radio. This prime real estate was reportedly expropriated from its owner by the GOT for use by the water authority, then later granted to Materi for private use.”
“In 2006, Imed and Moaz Trabelsi, Ben Ali's nephews, are reported to have stolen the yacht of a well-connected French businessman, Bruno Roger, Chairman of Lazard Paris. The theft, widely reported in the French press, came to light when the yacht, freshly painted to cover distinguishing characteristics, appeared in the Sidi Bou Said harbor….The stolen yacht affair resurfaced in early 2008 due to an Interpol warrant for the two Trabelsis.”
The suddenness of the overthrow of the government has led to rioting and looting, and the future of the nation is unclear. The Tunisian constitution calls for a presidential election to be held within 60 days.
In neighboring Egypt, where dictator Hosni Mubarak and his family are also unpopular and viewed as corrupt, pro-democracy sympathizers are already looking to Tunisia for inspiration. However Egypt, unlike Tunisia, has a strong Islamist movement that would aim to turn a popular uprising in a direction other than democracy.