Ben Ali’s wife blames general for Tunisia ‘coup d’état’
Leila Ben Ali, the wife of the deposed Tunisian president, has blamed a senior general for orchestrating a ‘coup d’état’ by tricking them into exile in Saudi Arabia, according to a book recently released in France.
The reviled wife of deposed Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali claims the 2011 Tunisian uprising that started the wave of Arab Spring revolts was a conspiracy hatched by the army and the French secret services, according to a book published this week in France.
Her book, title “Ma Verité” [My Truth], broadly defends her role as Tunisia’s first lady, while admitting that the excesses of her reviled Trabelsi clan – hated for having a virtual stranglehold on the Tunisian economy – helped bring about her husband’s downfall.
But the book, largely ghost-written by French editor Yves Derai after a series of Skype conversations from her exile in Saudi Arabia, focuses much of its attention on the president’s head of security, Ali Seriati, whom she claims orchestrated a “plot” that led to the uprising.
A hurried departure
Leila Ben Ali writes of the anguish of the morning of January 14, 2011, as she prepared to board a plane with various family members who had sought refuge at the presidential palace. Tunisia had been wracked by demonstrations for a month.
“We were certainly aware that our country was going through a difficult time,” she says. “But I absolutely did not believe the situation was going to get any worse, let alone that the family would be exiled within hours.”
Tunisia’s former first lady says the president had asked her to prepare to take her son on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia for four or five days, “long enough for the situation to return to normal.”
But it would turn into a permanent visit to the ultra-conservative Arab kingdom.
Leila Ben Ali describes how “dogs howled, sensing the drama” as they left the presidential compound. General Seriati, whom she describes from the opening pages of the book as “unbalanced” and “manipulative”, then persuaded the president to board the plane along with his family.
She writes that they believed it would be a short there-and-back trip, but that as soon as the passengers were dropped off, the plane returned to Tunisia – without the president or his entourage.
President Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for 23 years, had been tricked out of the country by one of the pillars of his regime, she claims.
“Without Seriati, the president would never have left the country,” she says. “It was a coup d’état ... helped by secret outside influences,” particularly France, the former colonial power and a long-time supporter of the Ben Ali regime.
A ‘humble person’
Leila Ben Ali also uses the book in an attempt to clear her sullied reputation.
“Tales that I flew out of the country with a dozen suitcases are pure fabrication,” she said in reference to rumours that she had left Tunisia weighed down with gold bullion. “I did not take my jewellery or most of my clothes. I was carrying no money and I didn’t even have a passport.”
Nicknamed the “Queen of Carthage” for her alleged taste for money and power, she goes on to describe herself as a “humble person”, submissive, without any real political influence and little interested in personal wealth.
The picture she paints of herself is far from the all-powerful wife who galvanised almost universal hatred in Tunisia: “At the airport [on July 14] I looked around for the slightest hint of hostility. I thought that if someone tried to shoot [President Ben Ali] it might as well be me that took the bullet.”
She does, however, admit to some of the extravagances of her Trabelsi clan, which operated a mafia-style stranglehold over Tunisia.
“Among my own, there were some who exaggerated - often the younger ones who freely indulged in their appetite for profits and refused to set limits. [...] These weaknesses and errors of my family were amplified outside and used with the sole objective of bringing down the regime of Ben Ali. [...] We were the Achilles heel of the president."
She adds that “she was wrong not to be more vigilant” of some of the “glaring mistakes” made by members of her family, and that she has had the time in exile to examine her record.
Leila Ben Ali claims she now spends most of her time caring for her husband and children: “I rarely go out. I see few people and I pray a lot.”
But her life of repentance may not be convincing in Tunisia, where her husband was sentenced in absentia last week to life in prison for ordering a bloody crackdown on last year’s protests.