Sasa Petricic: Teetering Tunisia selling off a dictator's loot

For Tunisians, the fact that former strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is gone — and that his trinkets may bring the treasury a few million dollars — is of little comfort, Sasa Petricic writes. The country has stumbled into political and economic uncertainty.

When a dictator moves out, what do you do with all his stuff? Closets full of suits, garages full of cars. All the knick-knacks from years of famous foreign visitors bearing gifts.

Well, when you're in a post-revolutionary economic slump — as is Tunisia — you hold a garage sale.

Deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was in power for some 24 years when he was forced to flee in 2011, and there was plenty of loot left behind.

Much of it is now on sale as his country tries to recoup whatever it can from a regime many say plundered more than it provided.

A shabby former casino on the outskirts of Tunis now holds the Ben Ali treasures.

Two dozen luxury cars crowd the big hall: Lamborghinis, Bentleys, armoured Cadillacs and several BMWs. Many others couldn't fit.

The ultra-luxury Mercedes Maybach in the corner is unique in Africa, a gift from Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. The hand-made Aston Martin is one of only two in existence, its twin was reportedly made for singer Elton John.

All are up for bids.

Household goods range from fridges to Xbox consoles, fine Persian rugs and baby carpets that look like they came from Zellers.

Another room is full of glittery, often gaudy, gifts. Golden eagles and lions, cut crystal stallions, ornate Buddhas.

The diamond jewelry and furs belonging to Ben Ali's wife, Leila, are worth millions. Long tables are covered with her unworn designer shoes (size 8) and matching handbags, priced at several hundred dollars each.

It's hard to feel too sorry for her, though. She reportedly left Tunisia with 1.5 tonnes of gold bars when the family bolted to Saudi Arabia.

'Gang leader'

The Ben Alis still live in the desert kingdom, exiled and isolated, and, in the case of the former dictator, out of reach of an international arrest warrant for money laundering and drug trafficking, which was requested by the current Tunisian government.

"Poor Tunisia," says the country's current minister of youth and sports, Tarek Dhyab. "It was controlled by a gang leader — not someone fit to lead a country."

Before the Arab Spring, from left: Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak, Saudi King Abdullah and Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. The two on the left are gone. (Ho New / Reuters)

Tunisians still live with the fallout of his reign. Any one of the dozens of jobless young people loitering on the streets of Sidi Bouzid can tell you about that.

This dusty town — about 250 kilometres south of Tunis — is famous as the birthplace of the Tunisian revolution, the spot where fruit peddler Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire two years ago.

Poor, powerless and frustrated by the cruelty of government officials who took his street cart and his livelihood, he came to symbolize the desperation of all those who eventually took to the streets in protest in Tunisia and throughout the Middle East.

Bouazizi's picture, three-storeys high, now covers the outside of Sidi Bouzid's main post office building.

But those who pass it no longer feel the euphoria that came with the victory of their revolution, the departure of their dictator.

"We had such high hopes for a better life," says Jihad Brahimi. He's 27 years old and an unemployed university graduate.

"Everyone in this country dreamed that after Jan 14 he will have a greater chance to have a job and to catch his dignity. But day after day we find that it became too hard. No, it didn't happen."

In fact, adds his friend Mohamed Slimani, "It's actually harder to find a job now than before."

New democracy teetering

Little wonder. Stability still hasn't returned to Tunisia. Investors are largely staying away and the country's main industry, tourism, hasn't recovered.

This year, the economy is expected to shrink by 2.2 per cent, and unemployment is officially at 17 per cent nationally.

In places like Sidi Bouzid, that figure is closer to 60 per cent, and the news of a political assassination this month — the street killing of opposition leader Chokri Belaid outside his home in Tunis — shocked Tunisians and only deepened the uncertainty, economically and politically.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali had been trying to take control of the crisis by appointing a government of non-aligned technocrats to oversee the country until elections can be held in a few months.

But his own Islamist party, Ennahda, the largest in the ruling coalition, rejected the plan and took its objections to the streets.

On Tuesday, Jebali gave up and resigned, adding yet more uncertainty to a precarious situation.

For Tunisians like Riadh Abidi, the fact that Ben Ali is gone — and that his trinkets may bring the treasury a few million dollars — is little comfort.

Unemployed, despite a master's degree, Abidi now spends his time blogging, chronicling the decline of Sidi Bouzid and its people. Though at least now he can speak about it freely.

"Before, we had one enemy — Ben Ali. And the fear was individual. You could get arrested, beaten up, maybe killed by his government, but otherwise life would go on," he says.

"But now, the fear is much worse and much bigger. We're seeing violence we haven't seen before, things we didn't expect. Now, we're afraid that the whole country could fall apart. We could end up with complete anarchy."

"It seems that was the price for freedom and dignity," he says. "Depressing, isn't it?"