PARIS -- Leila ben Ali, wife of deposed Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine ben Ali, gave a measured apology for any “mistakes” she may have committed and admitted Tunisians were denied political freedoms under her husband’s 23-year rule in her first interview since being driven out of Tunisia 18 months ago.
However, the so-called “Queen of Carthage,” whose unpopularity helped lead to the Tunisian revolution, insisted she was innocent before God, and claimed her family’s downfall was the result of an “orchestrated coup d’etat” rather than a popular protest that in turn fueled a series of "Arab Spring" revolutions across the Middle East.
Shown in Sunday’s French daily Le Parisien wearing a lace headscarf, sitting at a desk in front of a computer in what appears to be a comfortably large, elegant apartment in Saudi Arabia, she claimed: “I didn’t interfere with politics. I’m a girl of the people. My daily life was consecrated to charitable and social works.”
“God is witness, I never wanted to do harm to anyone at all,” she added. “If I’ve made myself guilty of wrongdoing against someone, I ask their forgiveness.”
Also asked in the interview over Skype was whether there should have been “more political liberties” in Tunisia under her watch, she said, “Yes, I agree.”
In June, her book, “My Truth,” which was published in France, claimed a plot by security officials ended her husband’s rule. “I don’t at all believe in the scenario of a spontaneous revolution born of a youthful protest movement,” she said.
She and her husband face charges in Tunisia including drug trafficking and embezzlement.
Leila ben Ali is particularly reviled in Tunisia for reputedly helping her Trabelsi clan gain land concessions and far-reaching control over parts of the country’s economy.
She told Le Parisien she helped “loved ones” only to “improve their quality of life,” citing the example of a relative she helped obtain a loan, which he paid back. “What they’ve forgotten is that I also helped people I didn’t know,” she said.
She said she and her husband “never intended to run away” on Jan. 14, 2011, and thought they could return easily to Tunisia, which they left without bags, money and passports.
Asked if her husband gave the order to shoot at civilian protesters, she said, “never,” adding, “I present my sincere condolences to those families. May God relieve their suffering and may those who gave those orders be judged.”
She read a prepared statement from her husband, who made a quick video cameo to refute rumors he was ill.
“I deplore the fact that people have forgotten that for 23 years, the state, under my direction, considerably improved the standard of living for everyone, and made Tunisia a modern country,” the statement said. “I admit, nevertheless, that there was still progress to be made, and freedoms to be put in place.”
“I aspire, at the twilight of my existence, simply to conserve my honor.”
-- Devorah Lauter