Dubbed as Imelda Marcos of the Arab world, Leila, a former hairdresser, was known for her love of wealth and its trappings. The woman, who came from a humble background, was branded "The Regent of Carthage' ' for her power behind the throne and her love of money, luxury cars and opulent homes.
This is why so much anger on the streets and the family known as "The Mafia''was a target of its attack directly. Looters , sick of the family's nepotism , filmed themselves on mobile phones destroying the expensive cars at one of their villas and riding motorbikes across the manicured laws.
Ali and Leila's two daughters have fled to the Disneyland Hotel in Paris, where they are holed up in £300-a-night VIP suites. Nesrine Ben Ali, 24, and her sister Cyrine are under guard there. Much of the corrupt family's £3.5 billion fortune is banked in France, the former colonial power in Tunisia.
Leila Trabelsi: Imelda Marcos of the Arab world
Leila Trabelsi, the first lady of Tunisia, fled with £35 million worth of gold, in a cut-and-run reminiscent of the most famous of this ilk, Imelda Marcos.
by Hannah Betts (The Telegraph)
Dido will be turning on her pyre at the news that the latest “Queen of Carthage”, deposed first lady Leila Trabelsi, has fled via a raid on the Bank of Tunisia’s gold reserves to the tune of £35 million, a hefty one-and-a-half tons of ingot.
Appropriately, she made her escape aboard her nifty “shopping plane”.
“Hang them all, but first bring back our gold,” was the street mob’s eloquent reaction as they ransacked her palatial villas.
Trabelsi, 53, a former hairdresser, has proved her mettle as a dictator’s wife by leaving no cliché unturned. Mrs Ben Ali is known for her penchant for fast cars - the family boasted more than 50 - luxury pads, and extravagant designer shopping jaunts to Dubai.
Her despised extended family, known as “The Mafia”, exerted a £3.5 billion stranglehold on business, construction and foreign investment, routinely jetting across continents for jollies.
Her 24-year-old daughter, Nesrine, and her playboy husband Sakhr are currently taking refuge in Disneyland Paris - a location no more fantastic than the ones she grew up in. Whether his pet tiger has joined them is still unclear.
’Twas ever thus, of course. Behind every powerful man of a totalitarian bent, there is a studiously groomed schemer a-pulling those strings.
Tunisia’s “Madame La Présidente” has been dubbed “the Imelda Marcos of the Arab world”. Were one to make the allusion in her company, she would doubtless be flattered.
Imelda, ah, Imelda, the dictator’s wife’s dictator’s wife. When Mrs Marcos fled to Hawaii from the Philippines in 1986, she memorably left in her wake 1,000 handbags, 508 gowns, 15 mink coats, lakes of perfume, and an infamous designer footwear collection numbering 3,000 pairs.
Was she repentant? Quite the contrary, boasting only recently that “when they opened Imelda’s cupboards, they did not find skeletons. They only found beautifully made shoes”.
Manila’s favourite foot fetishist is still going strong at 81. Indeed, in spring 2010, the “Iron Butterfly”, who returned to her homeland after the death of her husband, launched an unexpected bid for a congressional seat.
The self-appointed “grandmother of the nation” has embraced environmentalism, declaring: “I fight for truth and beauty. My ambition now is to save Mother Earth for humanity.” Something of a volte-face for a woman whose footwear left one hell of a carbon footprint.
Once one of the 10 richest women on earth, Mrs Marcos, who has never been jailed, has paid back very little looted dosh, although 901 civil and criminal cases have been filed against her.
She regularly pleads poverty, yet appears permanently bejewelled and lives in an exotic Manila penthouse where oil paintings adorn the lavatories.
Nevertheless, it was the ancient world that set the standard for the tyrant’s consort, as anyone who has enjoyed Radio 4’s recent dramatisation of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius will be aware.
Harry Mount, author of bestseller Amo, Amas, Amat and All That, observes: “There’s a goddess/monster thing going on with imperial women. The emperors were treated as semi-divine so their wives were treated with reflected divinity; or - if they were at all dodgy - became horrific monsters.
Livia, Augustus’s wife and a shocker of a controlling mother to Tiberius, is the perfect example - the ambition-crazed killer of pretenders to the imperial throne, who ensured that any word against her was considered treason.”
Tacitus’s hint that Livia had control freak qualities was transformed by Graves into a coruscating depiction of the most foul behind-the-scenes corruption. Certainly Suetonius’s remark that she was buried without Tiberius seeing her body because he let her rot suggests some lack of filial regard. Still, 13 years after her death in AD 42, Claudius dutifully deified her.
Contemporary examples of autocrat arm candy we love to hate abound. Haiti’s Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s marriage to the as yet undeified Michelle Pasquet fostered resentment, the extravagance of the couple’s estimated £3million 1980 nuptials, not least. Six years later he had been ousted.
In 2008, hundreds of Swazi women marched the capital’s streets to protest about a shopping trip taken by nine of the king’s 13 wives.
Grace Mugabe, wife of the Zimbabwean president, reportedly withdrew £69,200 before a spree to Hong Kong in 2009, as her country festered with poverty and disease. She is also thought to own the obligatory 3,000 pairs of heels.
In the same year, Her Excellency Chantal Biya of Cameroon upstaged Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell with a lavish hairstyle and her trademark bold prints.
Earlier, at an audience with the Pope, she put his mitre in the shade with a wedding cake-sized pink and white titfer emblazoned with crosses.
The dictator’s wife, it seems, is a stereotype that will run and run, with former beauty queens lining up to fill the role’s (copious, designer) shoes.
Why even Adam, the world’s first dictator, required a spot of female misadventure in the form of first Lilith, then Eve, without whom he would have blokishly got on with naming things.
Something in our collective psyche would appear to need such feminine excesses, to crave their existence by way of colour in an otherwise unremarkable tale: chap gains power; chap abuses power.
Democratically elected politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair require quotidianly nutbar sidekicks of the sort to seek out astrologers and new-age massage gurus. Autocrats are defined by the real, grotesquely high-rolling McCoy. If we didn’t have dictators’ wives, then we would have to invent them.
Indeed, perhaps we do. Feminist commentators have been swift to label some of the tales that circulate around despots’ consorts as misogyny.
In The First Ladies of Rome by Annelise Freisenbruch, the author argues that the perceived characters of the wives and daughters of the Julio-Claudians were dictated by critical reactions to imperial agendas.
Accordingly, pre-Holinshed, whose chronicles of Scotland’s history were the basis for Shakespeare’s play, Lady Macbeth may have been a blameless Scottish matriarch, hands unspotted. While there is every chance that Lucrezia Borgia was gormless papal chattel rather than a poisonous femme fatale.
Harry Mount is unconvinced so far as the ancient world is concerned: “I don’t think all this is misogynist.
Emperors got the same black and white treatment as their spouses: Caligula the nutty perv, Nero, fiddle-playing arsonist. The story of the emperors and empresses is packed with exaggerated caricatures; still, it makes for terrific copy.”
And not merely newspaper or history book copy. Today, the apotheosis of wifely despotism is not to become a goddess, but to be transformed into the heroine of a musical.
Eva Peron received the Andrew Lloyd Webber / Tim Rice treatment, Evita’s breakaway hit, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” passing over the fact that such tears may have been less for her, than prompted by her.
More recently, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim conspired to write Here Lies Love, a song cycle about Imelda Marcos, inspired by their heroine’s passion for disco, and released as a double album featuring Florence Welch, Martha Wainwright and Cyndi Lauper.
Byrne remarked: “I imagined that the ecstatic joy and loss of self inherent in a lot of dance music might mirror some of the headiness of a person in power, as well as their view of themselves as a living symbolic entity.” Quite.
Meanwhile, we, the little people tap our toes in our pitiably humdrum shoes. Leila Trabelsi take note.