Until his sister married into power and plundered wealth, Belhassen Trabelsi was a businessman of middling success whose life revolved around the modest cement company he started in 1986. Six years later, when his sister Leila married Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Trabelsi’s name became synonymous with power, absurd luxury and a bulletproof sense of impunity. He owned a radio station and a newspaper chain, as well as a luxury hotel. At one point he started a discount airline, availing himself of the facilities of Tunisair, the government-run airline, to service and run his airplane. His high-flying lifestyle apparently included travel to Canada, where, sometime in the mid-1990s, he acquired permanent residency.
This last bit would come in handy when his life took another turn. With the recent spectacular collapse of Ben Ali’s government, following a mass revolt of the Tunisian people, Trabelsi and his family fled to Montreal via private jet last week, and promptly checked in to a $325-a-night hotel in the Montreal suburb of Vaudreuil. Montreal’s sizable Tunisian community was almost instantly up in arms; many descended on the hotel after a local TV station reported that Trabelsi and his family had holed up there.
His welcome from the government hasn’t been any warmer. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made a statement saying Trabelsi isn’t welcome here; Trabelsi reportedly had his permanent residency stripped shortly after. (According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, permanent residents must live in Canada for at least two years of the five-year period after being granted status.) Trabelsi is now seeking refugee status—a strange twist of events, given the thousands of Tunisians who have turned up in Canada fleeing his family’s brutal regime in the past.
How a man of Trabelsi’s apparent excesses wound up making a home in Canada is another question. Trabelsi merits his own chapter in La Régente de Carthage, a 2009 book chronicling Ben Ali’s 23-year Tunisian kleptocracy. Co-authors Nicolas Beau and Catherine Graciet describe Trabelsi as “vulgar” and a “hoodlum.” He made his first fortune using his connections to acquire tracts of government-owned agricultural and historic lands, transforming them into commercial properties and selling the eventual developments. He became part-owner of the Khamsa luxury hotel in Tunis, with Maltese partners—whom he subsequently muscled out of the equation. He was an administrator of the Banque de Tunisie, “which until his arrival was one of the few institutions untouched by ‘the family,’ ” write the authors, using a popular Tunisian moniker for the Ben Ali-Trabelsi alliance. In addition to his minor media empire, he owned several car assembly plants, and the exclusive rights to the distribution of Ford automobiles. All told, Ben Ali and his family were thought to have controlled 30 per cent of Tunisia’s economy, and were worth upwards of US$10 billion.
The Tunisian street certainly took notice of Trabelsi’s activities; in a diplomatic cable dated July 2008 and released by WikiLeaks, former U.S. ambassador Robert F. Godec wrote how the Trabelsi family “provoke the greatest ire from Tunisians”—in large part, it seems, because of Belhassen himself. “[He] is the most notorious family member and is rumoured 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.”
Trabelsi wasn’t the only one of his clan to have taken refuge in Montreal: in 2008, Sakher Mohamed El-Matri, husband of Ben Ali’s daughter Nescine, bought a $2.5-million spread in the upper reaches of Westmount. “It wasn’t anything special inside,” a Montreal contractor who worked on the house told Maclean’s. Still, it had a commanding view of Montreal atop the city’s swishiest neighbourhood; though the couple sold it last year, news that Trabelsi might be there led protesters to plaster the door with ketchup.
Somewhat surprisingly, Trabelsi’s application for refugee status is something much of Montreal’s Tunisian community appears to have taken in stride, even though the process (and possible appeals) can take years to play out. “He’s trying to buy time,” says Haroun Bouazzi, a 32-year-old engineer and Tunisian human rights activist. Given Trabelsi’s wealth, Bouazzi doesn’t think he’ll be granted refugee status. “We think the refugee application is a good one, because it is a legal process. After that he will have no more excuses.”
As for the irony of Trabelsi applying for refugee status, Bouazzi was equally sanguine. “We’re just happy it’s the dictators who are asking for refugee status, and not members of the opposition.”