From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.


And Im Melissa Block.

Tunisia's new interim government was on shaky ground today, as four cabinet ministers resigned and more threatened to do so. The departures came in protest over the continued presence in the government of allies of the ousted dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisians want a complete break from his rule. They say the former president and, in particular, his wife and her family abused their power and enriched themselves at the expense of the Tunisian people.

From Tunis, Eleanor Beardsley reports.

(Soundbite of conversations)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Four days after the over of Tunisia's dictator, this is the scene in an upscale suburban neighborhood of Tunis called La Marsa. A white-washed villa has been laid to waste by looters. Even though there's nothing more to take away, hundreds of people still come every day to visit the wrecked shell.

The house belonged to businessman Moez Trabelsi, one of the 10 brothers of the president's wife, Leila Trabelsi.

Professor MOUNIR KHALIFA (English Department, University of Tunis): The (unintelligible) is in cinders. This is the thieves' house, robbers' house.

BEARDSLEY: Thats Mounir Khalifa, an English professor at the University of Tunis, and my guide through the pillaged mansions of the Ben Ali-Trabelsi clan today. The swimming pool has a mattress floating in it. The yard is littered with broken furniture and women's magazines. Tunisian families are walking through the villa's empty trash-strewn rooms as if it were a real estate open house.

Khalifa says Tunisians despise the president they deposed, but they hate his wife even more. The 55-year-old former hairdresser is 74-year-old Ben Ali's second wife. She and her 10 brothers wrapped themselves around almost every sector of the country's economy, say Tunisians. They controlled the car dealerships, the banks, the airlines, the media and the major retailers.

Thirty-seven-year-old Ameljour Tela(ph), who started her own company, says doing business in Tunisia was hell.

Ms. AMELJOUR TELA (Businesswoman): It was terrible and you are scared all the time. What if I cross them one day in my life, what will happen to me? After years of work, years of maybe one day I will meet them in the coffee shop, we are scared of phantoms called Trabelsi and Ben Ali.

BEARDSLEY: Cables from the U.S. ambassador in Tunisia that surfaced in WikiLeaks paint a picture of a family that lived in excessive decadence, while many Tunisians lived below the poverty line.

Invited to dinner at the villa of Ben Ali's favorite son-in-law, the ambassador described ice cream imported from St. Tropez on a private jet and a pet tiger in a cage on the compound.

Just three days before the final wave of protest that brought Ben Ali down, writer Abd al-Aziz Belhoja(ph) took the risk of distributing documents showing the extent of what he calls the Mafioso activity of the president, his wife and her family.

Mr. ABD AL-AZIZ BELHOJA (Writer): (Through Translator) It reached unimaginable proportions. These people wanted to take over the country. Thats why they took the banks and the media. She appointed the ministers because, after his death, she wanted to keep control of the country.

BEARDSLEY: In its two decades in power, Belhoja estimates that Ben Ali and his extended family stole about $20 billion, twice Tunisia's national budget.

(Soundbite of a vehicle door)

BEARDSLEY: Our last stop is a magnificent balconied villa on a hillside, the home of a simple primary school teacher whose name happens to be Adel Trabelsi.

(Soundbite of clattering)

BEARDSLEY: Inside the house Tunisians are ripping out wiring and trying to detach some electric blinds from the windows. Everyone is smiling and laughing.

My guide, Mounir Khalifa, says no one in their wildest dreams would have imagined such a sudden and ignominious collapse of the Ben Ali/Trabelsi family.

Prof. KHALIFA: We suspected that tyrannical power is weak. But to this extent, this kind of weakness is just amazing. I think if there is one lesson to be learned, it's precisely that dictatorships, they're giants with feet of clay.

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, Im Eleanor Beardsley in Tunis.

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