* Assets acquired by nepotism, corruption to be seized
* Shares in joint ventures with foreign firms to be sold
(adds PM on corruption, central banker on gold reserves)
By Paul Taylor
PARIS, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Tunisia’s economy will be purged legally of the grip of overthrown president Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali’s extended family, and is well placed to flourish, a leading Tunisian economist said on Monday.
Moncef Cheikhrouhou, forced to sell his shares in a family press group to a relative of the president and go into exile in 2000, said a commission created by the Justice Ministry would unravel assets acquired through nepotism and corruption.
“They behaved like a mafia that reaped money from all sectors of the Tunisian economy,” Cheikhrouhou told Reuters in an interview in Paris, where he teaches international finance at the HEC business school.
“For example, all car imports had to be controlled by the family. Tunisians who wanted to import new brands either had to give a majority stake to a member of the family without paying, or hand over a rake-off on the profits,” he said.
Cheikhrouhou said Tunisia had a young entrepreneurial class eager to create wealth and jobs once the suffocating hand of the ruling clan was removed from the economy, and a competent civil service capable of administering the country.
The World Bank estimated Tunisia’s growth rate could be raised two or three percentage points from 4 percent a year to India’s level if corruption and nepotism were removed, he said.
Cheikhrouhou, 65, vice-president of the Circle of Arab Economists, is close to reformist opposition figures forming a coalition government and is seen as a possible finance or economy minister in a democratic administration.
“Tunisia isn’t starting from zero,” he said, noting that some 1,350 French companies and 300-400 Italian firms, as well as some big U.S. enterprises, had set up a presence in the North African state of 10 million people, which has a free-trade agreement for goods with the European Union.
Many foreign firms that did business in Tunisia were forced to enter into partnership with relatives of Ben Ali and his wife Leila’s Trabelsi family, which would now have to be unwound.
“We are trying to make sure that the rule of law prevails in Tunisia,” he said. “I expect this commission will receive an enormous number of demands for compensation. The most flagrant cases, the Trabelsi and Chiboub families, will be treated more simply like money laundering cases.”
The Chiboub family are related to Ben Ali by marriage to one of his daughters.
Several members of the Trabelsi family have been arrested or attacked since Ben Ali and his wife fled abroad last Friday.
Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said on Monday that the government will investigate anyone suspected of corruption or of having amassed huge wealth under the deposed leader.
A senior central bank official, Habib Maalej, denied reports that the ex-president’s family had taken 1.5 tonnes of gold worth $66 million out of the country.
“I was very surprised to read this information and I affirm and confirm that the gold reserves in Tunisia are very well preserved and not one ounce was brought out,” Maalej said in a telephone interview with the African Manager website.
Illustrating how foreign investment worked under Ben Ali, Cheikhrouhou cited the example of French do-it-yourself chain Bricorama, which had moved into Tunisia by making a partnership with a member of the Trabelsi family.
“Legally, we will have to find Bricorama another partner. The shares will be sold to bidders in an open process,” he said.
Protesters attacked or looted several French-owned businesses, including Carrefour and Monoprix supermarkets, during the Tunisian unrest.
Cheikhrouhou said the attacks were due to anger at French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s longstanding support for Ben Ali, whom Paris refused to criticise until the day before he fled, but would not last now the dictatorship had been overthrown. (Editing by Jon Boyle)