Bin Ali’s wife Laila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser, was variously dubbed ‘Tunisia’s Lady Macbeth’ and ‘the Imelda Marcos of the Arab world’ due to her appetite for luxury homes, fast cars, designer clothes and lavish jewellery. Image Credit: Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

Revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have been illuminating in more ways than one.  In each case, a paternalistic autocrat announcing his wish to live and die on his country’s soil has either been forcibly unglued from his chair or, in the case of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, is still clinging on.

Besides the lengthy tenures of Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Gaddafi, the three men have much in common. For one thing, they are all ex-military men well past retirement age and all have harboured ambitions to see their educated sons step into their shoes.

They say that behind every great man is a woman and certainly in recent years Egyptians believed Mubarak’s wife Suzanne was the power behind his throne. She attended ministerial meetings, accompanied visits on official trips abroad and, according to Mustafa Kamel Al Syed, a political science professor at the American University of Cairo, she wielded substantial political influence.

Suzanne was generally disliked but especially in Alexandria where she made every effort — unsuccessful as it turned out — to tear down a large maternity hospital so as to build a car park for wealthy visitors to the Bibliotheca. People were always wondering what she did with the substantial foreign donations that regularly poured into her charitable causes.

Award-winning author and lecturer Aladdin Al Assar told Masry Al Youm that “it is plausible that Suzanne Mubarak embezzled some of the estimated $5 billion (Dh18.35 billion) the charities received on a yearly basis”.

Around the country her name is being expunged from buildings and streets and even her home governorate Minya is seeking an alternative name for Suzanne Mubarak Square. Experts have put the combined wealth of Mubarak, his wife and sons at $40-70 billion.

Bin Ali’s wife Laila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser, was variously dubbed ‘Tunisia’s Lady Macbeth’ and ‘the Imelda Marcos of the Arab world’ due to her appetite for luxury homes, fast cars, designer clothes and lavish jewellery.

A headline in the Daily Mail read ‘Wife of Tunisian President fled riot-torn country with 1.5 tonnes of gold’. His daughter Nesrine was called the ‘Tunisian Marie-Antoinette’ for her extravagant lifestyle.

According to the paper, she would fly in ice-cream from St Tropez to her beachside mansion using a private jet. Altogether the family’s wealth is estimated to be in the range of $3.5 billion, most of it in France.

Gaddafi has several wives, a Ukrainian nurse and an army of female bodyguards behind him. His seven sons and one daughter have enjoyed privileged lifestyles. The family controls a fund that manages Libya’s $65 billion oil wealth while the family private wealth is thought to exceed $20 billion.

Gaddafi may be giving speeches from bombed out buildings wearing rough brown revolutionary robes but away from the public gaze he has been consolidating his fortune. A Swiss-based financial intermediary says Gaddafi secretly deposited $4.8 billion with one of London’s private wealth managers last week.

It seems that all three robber families are imploding. Mubarak’s son Ala’a was overheard yelling at his brother Jamal for ruining his father’s reputation by inserting his crony capitalist businessmen friends into ministerial positions.

And, indeed, several have been arrested and jailed by Egyptian authorities while they are being investigated for corruption. Ala’a appears to have forgotten that a decade ago he was known as ‘Mr Ten Percent’.

Bin Ali has had a lot more to contend with. When he hesitated in boarding the plane to Saudi Arabia, his wife screamed at him “Get into the plane, you fool” while the commander of his presidential guard shouted obscenities at him, according to the witness account of an unnamed air force officer who spoke to the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.

The magazine suggests that the president was in fear of his wife who leant on him not to resign when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 because she wanted to either inherit the presidency herself or ensure it fell to her son as soon as he came of age.

While there is no evidence to suggest Gaddafi’s women are deserting him — with the possible exception of his lawyer daughter Aisha who is flying around the world in search of sanctuary — his son Saif Al Arab, sent to crack down on pro-democracy protesters in Benghazi, has joined them.

In the end, Bin Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi have emerged as sad, slightly unhinged figures, despised by the people they swore to serve and protect. They are all examples of the adage absolute power corrupts.

Despite reports that they lived in a bubble cut off from the needs and aspirations of ordinary citizens, they cannot be forgiven for taking food out of the mouths of the hungry who once looked up to them. They have unashamedly looted their countries using oppression, censorship and propaganda to keep anyone from finding out.

Twenty per cent of Egyptians live below the poverty line, 3.8 per cent of Tunisians and an estimated one-third of all Libyans – a country with a population of just 6.5 million and a whopping $77 billion GDP.

Such selfish, greedy dinosaurs deserve to be exiled and shamed. Their ill-gotten gains wherever they are should be confiscated and returned to the people who have been so cruelly treated for so long. 

Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at lheard@gulfnews.com. For the full article, log on to www.gulfnews.com/opinion.