Image: Leila Ben Ali
Fethi Belaid  /  AFP - Getty Images
 Leila Ben Ali delivers a speech last Oct. 28 during the opening of the Third Arab Women's Organization Conference in Tunis.
By
updated 1/17/2011 3:13:46 PM ET 2011-01-17T20:13:46

Tunisians couldn't stand her even more than they couldn't stand him.

The end of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's iron-fisted, 23-year rule brought joy to many ordinary people in this North African nation — and they were especially elated at the prospect of life without his wife and her rapacious family.

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The clan of former first lady Leila Trabelsi, a one-time hairdresser who rose to become Tunisia's most influential woman, was widely despised as the ultimate symbol of corruption and excess. Leila and her 10 siblings are said to have operated like a mafia, extorting money from shop owners, demanding a stake in businesses large and small, and divvying up plum concessions among themselves.

Their control over the North African country's economy was vast. The Trabelsi and Ben Ali's own families were said to have a stake in Tunisian banks and airlines, car dealerships, Internet providers, radio and television stations, industry and big retailers.

And when mass protests forced Ben Ali to flee Friday to Saudi Arabia, his peoples' pent-up rage was directed more at Leila's side of the family than at her husband and his authoritarian regime.

Retribution was swift. Within a day of Ben Ali's departure, many of the sumptuous villas and businesses belonging to the Trabelsis were pillaged and burned, and some reports said one prominent family member was killed by an angry mob. A Tunis Air pilot who refused to take off with five fleeing family members on board has become a national hero.

A branch of the Zeitouna bank in Tunis founded by Ben Ali's son-in-law was torched, as were vehicles made by the car brands he distributed, including Kia, Fiat and Porsche.

"They (the Trabelsis) are thieves, tricksters and even killers," raged Tunis resident Mantasser Ben Mabrouk. "Their only goal was to make money in whatever way they could."

His friend Mohamed Gaddahi agreed, laying — as many here do — much of the blame for the regime's abuses squarely on the Trabelsis.

"The president did lots of good, but the family did lots of harm to Tunisia," Gaddahi said.

U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks appear to shore up that conclusion. A June 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tunis describes a report by anti-corruption group Transparency International saying: "Whether it's cash, services, land, property ... President Ben Ali's family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants."

The economic fallout of the Trabelsis' web of corruption and influence-mongering was palpable, the cable said, with "Tunisian investors — fearing the long-arm of 'the Family' — forgoing new investments, keeping domestic investment rates low and unemployment high."

A lack of jobs in this highly educated nation fueled the month of popular protests that toppled Ben Ali. The uprising began in December after a despairing university graduate who sold fruits and vegetables without a permit set himself on fire and died because police confiscated his goods.

The co-author of a book on Leila Trabelsi, "La Regente de Carthage," says the Trabelsis played an "absolutely capital" role in the fall of the regime.

"Tunisians were absolutely aware of what they were up to and they got to a point where they were sick and tired of their behavior," said author Catherine Graciet. Still, she noted that "we can't put all the blame on the Trabelsis, because it was Ben Ali himself who allowed them to act that way."

Leila Trabelsi was born in 1957 — the fifth of 11 children of a dried fruits vendor and a housewife, according to Graciet's book.

After working as a hairdresser and having a short-lived first marriage, Trabelsi married Ben Ali in 1992, five years after the bloodless palace coup in which he replaced aging independence hero Habib Bourguiba as president.

The marriage — which was also Ben Ali's second — catapulted the once-modest Trabelsi clan to national prominence.

Her oldest brother, Belhassen, known as the clan chieftain, is said to have ruled over the family's many mafia-style rackets.

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Her nephew, Imed Trabelsi, was reputed to be the spoiled brat of the family and the former first lady's favorite, according to the book. Known as a playboy, he enjoyed a jet-set lifestyle, complete with a garage full of sports cars and yachts.

French prosecutors suspected him and another of Leila Trabelsi's nephews of having ordered the 2006 theft of a yacht belonging to a French investment banker that turned up in the Tunisian port of Sidi Bou Said. Still, a French judge ruled that the two Trabelsis could be tried at home, despite the fact that Tunisia was ruled by their uncle. It was not clear if any trial was ever held in Tunisia.

Some Tunisian media reports said Imed Trabelsi was recognized at the Tunis airport as he attempted to flee the country hours after the regime crumbled — and was attacked by an angry mob. Conflicting reports said he was stabbed by a fisherman in the town where he was mayor, an upscale coastal town near the capital. He reportedly died from his wounds at a Tunis military hospital over the weekend.

It was not immediately possible to verify those reports.

Graciet said the ex-first lady tried to block the book's release on the ground that it painted an unflattering portrait of her, but a French judge rejected Trabelsi's legal motion.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, and Tunisian media reported he was joined by his wife and a few other relatives. The couple has two girls and one boy.

The whereabouts of all family members was unclear. France, which ruled Tunisia as a protectorate until it won independence in 1956, said some Ben Ali relatives were in France but they were "not welcome" to stay. Media reports had them at a hotel near the Disneyland Paris resort.

French government spokesman Francois Baroin also said France had taken "the necessary steps" to block any suspicious movement of Tunisian assets linked to Ben Ali and his entourage that might be squirreled away in France.

Mohamed Ben Kilani, the pilot of a scheduled Tunis Air flight to Lyon, France, became an instant hero at home after he refused to take off Friday with five members of the Trabelsi family on board, airline officials say.

"It was a courageous act that merits being highlighted," Ali Miaoui, director of Tunis Air's French division, told AP Television News.

This is not the first time that anger has crystallized toward the wives of dictators, despots and autocrats.

In the 1980s, the public was more outraged at the spending excesses of Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos — a shoe addict of legendary proportions — than at her husband Ferdinand Marcos, who allegedly amassed billions of dollars in ill-gotten wealth during his 21 years in power.

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's marriage to the flamboyant and free-spending Michelle Pasquet estranged the Haitian dictator from his father's old supporters. He was deposed in 1987.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: State of emergency

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  1. A Tunisian soldier talks with a woman during the sanitary service clean out in the Kasbah district after Tunisian inhabitants of Sidi Bouzid and protesters were evacuated following clashes with security forces in front of the government palace on Saturday, Jan. 29 in Tunis. Riot police and hundreds of protesters clashed in the Tunisian capital on January 28, 2011, as a new cabinet was sworn into office in a bid to end the unrest that has followed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's ouster. Security forces fired warning shots and tear gas, as some groups threw stones in the main government quarter where protesters have remained camped out in front of Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi's offices for five days. (Fethi Belaid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Tunisian sanitary service workers clean out a street in the Kasbah district on Jan. 29. (Fethi Belaid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Tunisian protesters run away during clashes with riot police outside the prime minister's office in Tunis on Friday, Jan. 28. Tunisian security forces chased groups of protesters through central Tunis after dispersing hundreds of rural demonstrators holding a 24-hour sit-in outside government offices. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Tunisian riot police use their shields for cover during clashes with demonstrators after they stormed a protest camp outside the prime minister's office in Tunis on Jan. 28. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A man reads a newspaper with a story about the new ministers that have been put in the Tunisian government, at a street kiosk in downtown Tunis on Jan. 28. The Tunisian government ditched loyalists to its ousted president on Thursday -- a move which won backing from the powerful labor union and could help defuse protests. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Tunisian students are blocked by security forces as they demonstrate in front of the Justice ministry in Tunis on January 27. Thousands took to the streets of Tunisia to call for old regime politicians to be ousted after the fall of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, as the cabinet prepared a reshuffle. (Fethi Belaid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tunisian protesters pull away barbed wire to let through the protesters on the other side of the police barricade near government offices in the Kasbah, the old city of Tunis, Jan. 27. Police blocked several roads leading up to the Kasbah in the Tunisian capital Tunis on Jan. 27 after a day of violent clashes on Jan. 26 between demonstrators and security forces who fired tear gas and left several people injured. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A protester from Tunisia's marginalised rural heartlands chants slogans during a demonstration outside the prime minister's office in Tunis, Jan. 27. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Protesters help municipality workers clear up piles of rubbish on the streets left behind by fellow protesters who spent the night outside the prime minister's office in the Kasbah, the old city of Tunis Jan. 27. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Policemen try to calm down a pro-government protester as he shouts towards anti-government protesters during a demonstration in central Tunis on Tuesday, Jan. 25. Hundreds of Tunisians rallied on Tuesday in support of the interim government formed after the ousting of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, but later clashed with protesters demanding a purge of former regime loyalists. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man cuts himself with scissors as he protests outside the once feared Tunisian Interior Ministry. The man was placated by citizens and suffered no serious injuries on Jan. 25, in Tunis, Tunisia. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A boy hangs from the door as he shouts slogans during an anti-government demonstration in central Tunis on Jan. 25. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Inhabitants of the central Tunisia region of Sidi Bouzid chant slogans during a demonstration in front of the Government palace in Tunis on Jan. 23. The protesters came from a poverty-stricken rural region where the crackdown against protesters in the final days of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year regime was at its harshest. (Fethi Belaid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Protesters who marched from the rural areas of Tunisia as part as the 'Liberation Caravan' take a rest outside the prime minister's office on Jan. 23, in Tunis, Tunisia. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tunisians light candles during a nighttime vigil in downtown Tunis, Jan. 22. Protesters in Tunisia, emboldened by their overthrow of the president a week ago, took to the streets Saturday to try and force out his lieutenants, whom they accuse of clinging to power in the face of popular anger. (Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Tunisian soldiers stand guard near the Prime Minister's office during a demonstration in Tunis, Jan. 22. Tunisia's interim prime minister promised to quit politics after the elections, a pledge intended to appease protesters demanding remnants of the old guard leave a unity coalition formed after the overthrow of the president. (Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Police officers celebrate as they demonstrate in Tunis, Saturday, Jan. 22. Tunisia's once-feared police who carried out the repressive policies of their now exiled president are joining hands with protesters who brought down the dictator. (Christophe Ena / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A protester gestures in front of the headquarters of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party of ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali during a demonstration in downtown Tunis on Jan. 20, 2011. (Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. People demonstrate on Jan. 20 in Tunis against the former president's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) in a new wave of anger about the presence of RCD stalwarts in the transitional government. (Martin Bureau / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Protesters kiss and embrace soldiers during a demonstration in Tunis on Jan. 20. Some observers have said that the army's restraint has helped to keep protests from escalating. (Martin Bureau / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Interim President Fouad Mebazaa (fifth from right) and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi (bottom left) attend the first session of the newly appointed transitional cabinet on Jan. 20 at the government palace in Tunis. (Fethi Belaid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A soldier pushes back a protester as he shows that he is unarmed during a demonstration in front of the headquarters of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party on Jan. 20. Police fired shots into the air to try to disperse hundreds of protesters demanding that ministers associated with the ousted president leave the government. (Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Family of Mohamed Bouazizi pray and mourn at his grave in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on Wednesday, Jan. 19. Bouazizi, a vegetable salesman, set himself on fire on Dec. 17, igniting protests that forced ex-president Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali to flee the country. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A man looks at inscriptions written on the walls in the scorched and looted home belonging to the nephew of ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Hammamet, southeast of Tunis on Jan. 19. (Martin Bureau / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Protesters carry a coffin symbolizing the death of the Constitutional Democratic Rally party of ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali during a demonstration in downtown Tunis on Jan. 19. Hundreds of protesters demonstrated in the Tunisian capital on Wednesday to demand the dismissal from the new coalition government of ministers associated with ousted president Ben Ali. (Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A woman reacts during a demonstration against the Constitutional Democratic Rally party of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in central Tunis on Jan. 19. (Thibault Camus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A protestor throws back tear gas at the police during clashes after a demonstration against the Constitutional Democratic Rally, RCD, party of Ben Ali in the center of Tunis on Tuesday, Jan. 18. Four ministers quit Tunisia's day-old government on Tuesday, undermining its hopes of quelling unrest by sharing power with members of the opposition to the old regime. Clashes broke out in central Tunis around the time the resignations were announced, as police fought off protesters demanding that the new cabinet be purged of the old guard that served Ben Ali. (Christophe Ena / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Protestors hold bread as they face riot police officers during a demonstration against the Constitutional Democratic Rally, RCD, party of Ben Ali in the center of Tunis, on Jan. 18. 2011. Four ministers quit Tunisia's day-old government on Tuesday, undermining its hopes of quelling unrest by sharing power with members of the opposition to the old regime. Clashes broke out in central Tunis around the time the resignations were announced, as police fought off protesters demanding that the new cabinet be purged of the old guard that served Ben Ali. (Christophe Ena / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A man lies injuried during a demonstration in Tunis on Jan.18. Riot police fired tear gas and clashed with protesters on January 18 at a small protest rally against Tunisia's new government in the centre of the capital, AFP reporters on the ground saw. Around 100 protesters chanted slogans against the RCD party of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. "We can live on bread and water alone but not with the RCD," they said. Riot police dispersed the rally -- one of several expected. (Fred Dufour / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Tunisian opposition figure Moncef Markouzi celebrates is he is welcomed by supporters, after arriving at the international airport of Tunis on Jan. 18, 2010. Tunisia's day-old government was shaken by the resignation of four ministers on Tuesday, undermining its hopes of quelling simmering unrest by sharing power with members of the opposition to the old regime. (Thibault Camus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A demonstrator reacts as security forces use water canons to disperse protesters downtown Tunis on Monday, Jan. 17. Police disperesed crowds after demonstrators took to the streets demanding that the ruling party of the ousted president give up power. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. People demonstrate in central Tunis on Jan. 17. Tunisian protesters called for the abolition of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's ruling party amid a chaotic power vacuum as politicians prepared a government of national unity. Hundreds of people rallied in Tunis and there were similar protests in Sidi Bouzid and Regueb in central Tunisia - two towns at the heart of the movement that forced Ben Ali to resign and flee on Friday after 23 years in power. (Fred Dufour / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A demonstrator argues with a policeman during a protest in central Tunis on Jan. 17. Hundreds rallied in central Tunis on Monday to demand the abolition of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's ruling party. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi was a close ally of Ben Ali and held talks with opposition parties on Sunday to form a national unity government. (Fred Dufour / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Police beat a demonstrator in central Tunis on Jan. 17. (Fred Dufour / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, left, speaks with Tunisian interim President Foued Mbazaa upon his arrival at the Prime Ministry at the Casbah, in Tunis, Tunisia, on Jan 17. The army continued to patrol the streets as the country awaited the formation of a new national unity government. Tanks were still being deployed on the main avenue in Tunis and army helicopters flew over the city as the administration of interim President Foued Mabazaa sought to stamp out the lawlessness that took hold after longtime leader Zine el-Abidine ben Ali abruptly left power on Jan. 14. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Protestors greet soldiers during a demonstration against former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the center of Tunis on Jan. 17. Helicopters circled overhead as police used tear gas to break up a demonstration on the main avenue in central Tunis. (Christophe Ena / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. People view the ransacked home of Kaif Ben Ali, nephew of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in the Mediterranean resort of Hammamet, about 40 milesfrom the capital on Sunday, Jan. 16. Several hundred people filed through the home of Kaif Ben Ali, taking photographs, picking up plants as souvenirs and stripping out plumbing fixtures, two days after the president was ousted. The home was also set ablaze, according to witnesses. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. A woman tries to convince army soldiers to allow her to cross a street in Tunis on Saturday, Jan. 15. Hundreds of soldiers patrolled the streets of the Tunisian capital on Saturday where the prime minister was met opposition parties in an attempt to form a coalition after protests swept the president from power. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Workers clean a train station dammaged overnight, on Jan. 15 in Tunis. Looting took place overnight in the suburbs of Tunis, witnesses said. (Fred Dufour / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A protester hits a policeman during clashes with riot police in downtown Tunis on Friday, Jan. 14. Tunisian President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali stepped aside on Friday after failing to quell the worst anti-government unrest in his two decades in power. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Protesters carry an unconscious woman during clashes with riot police in the downtown of the capital Tunis on Jan. 14. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Women run during clashes with riot police in downtown Tunis, Jan. 14. Tunisian President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali declared a state of emergency on Friday and warned that protesters would be shot in an increasingly frantic effort to quell the worst unrest in his two decades in power. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, center, addresses the nation on state television Friday. He said that he had taken over as interim president after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had left the country. (Channel 7 / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A column of smoke rises from buildings during clashes in Tunis on Friday. (Christophe Ena / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Plain clothed police and riot police officers clash with demonstrators in Tunis. Tunisia's president left the country as gunfire echoed in the North African country's usually calm capital. (Christophe Ena / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Demonstrators gather in front of the interior ministry in Tunis on Friday demanding President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resign. Thousands of angry demonstrators marched through Tunisia's capital a day after the country's autocratic leader appeared on TV to try to stop deadly riots that have swept the North African nation. (Fethi Belaid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. "No to Ben Ali, the uprising continues," hundreds shouted in a march down the main boulevard in central Tunis. (Christophe Ena / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. A demonstrator throws a stone at police during clashes in Tunis on Friday. (Christophe Ena / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. Riot police officers detain a protestor during clashes in Tunis on Friday. (Christophe Ena / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Protesters chant slogans against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis on Friday. (Christophe Ena / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. General secretary of the opposition Progressive Democratic party (PDP) Maya Jeridi, center, shouts slogans in front the Interior ministry in Habib Bourguiba avenue in Tunis on Friday. (Fethi Belaid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. People wait in front of the departure gate at the airport in Tunis on Friday. The army took control of the main international Tunis Carthage airport on January 14 and the country's airspace was shut down, an airport source told AFP, as weeks of unrest escalated. (Fred Dufour / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali addresses the nation on Thursday. Ben Ali, facing a wave of violent unrest, said he would not change the constitution to allow him to run again when his term expires in 2014. (Handout via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. Supporters of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali demonstrate in Tunis on Thursday night. (Christophe Ena / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. Rescue workers evacuate unidentified victims of violence on stretchers in Tunis on Thursday. (Hedi Ben Salem / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  56. Newly appointed interior minister Ahmed Friaa attends an extraordinary session at the Chamber of Deputies in Tunis on Thursday. (Fethi Belaid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  57. Tunisian security forces face demonstrators during clashes on Monday in Regueb, near Sidi Bouzid. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  58. A demonstrator injured in clashes with security forces on Sunday in Regueb, near Sidi Bouzid. Protests sparked by high youth unemployment spread from the central town of Sidi Bouzid to other parts of the country. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  59. A child holds a sign asking for the release of people kept in custody by police following recent protests, during a demonstration in Tunis on Jan. 8. (Hassene Dridi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  60. Lawyer Abderrahman Ayedi takes off his shirt during a meeting in Tunis on Dec. 29 to show to human rights activist and lawyer Radhia, second from right, marks on his body. He said that he had been subjected to torture the previos day after he was arrested by police. (Fethi Belaid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  61. President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, second from left, meets patient Mohamed Bouazizi during a visit at the Ben Arous hospital near Tunis on Dec. 28. Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate, had set himself on fire in a protest over unemployment, sparking a wave of unrest and clashes. (Handout via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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