Montreal Tunisians hailed news Thursday that Belhassen Trabelsi, the billionaire brother-in-law of deposed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, faced questioning by immigration officials after Tunisia officially requested his arrest.
Trabelsi reportedly left the ChÃ¢teau Vaudreuil Thursday afternoon for an undisclosed location, where he was to be questioned by officials.
He had been staying at the hotel west of the city since arriving in Montreal by private jet last week with his wife, four children and a governess.
Esme Bailey, a senior media spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), refused to confirm that Trabelsi faced questioning. A statement by CBSA noted that all “persons seeking to enter Canada must appear for an examination to determine whether they have a right to enter or become authorized to enter Canada.”
However, members of the local Tunisian community, which numbers 6,500 according to the 2006 census, were celebrating in the wake of media reports that Canada had revoked the permanent-resident status Tabelsi had obtained as an immigrant in a category reserved for wealthy investors.
“It’s a victory. We are very happy,” said Fadoua Mhiri, 39, a homemaker who has been glued to her computer to keep abreast of events in Tunisia since Ben Ali fled the country Jan. 14.
However, Mhiri and other Montreal Tunisians charged that Canada has been slow to react to the popular revolt that toppled Ben Ali and is now roiling Egypt and Yemen.
“The Tunisian revolution took everybody totally by surprise. The same people who were friends of Canada a week or two ago became enemies and wanted criminals overnight,” Mhiri said.
In Rabat, Morocco, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said members of the deposed regime in Tunisia are “not welcome” in Canada and that he supports calls for “democratic development” in Egypt. Harper made the comments after a meeting with Moroccan Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi, where the two of them discussed the recent wave of unrest hitting nations in North Africa.
Middle East expert Henry Habib said the overthrow of the Tunisian dictator and violent protest in Egypt have been a long time coming.
“This has been going on for decades: the malcontent and unhappiness of the people from political corruption,” said Habib, an emeritus professor of political science at Concordia and lecturer at the University of Ottawa.
“What you needed was a spark to put the whole tinder box ablaze.”
That spark was 26-year-old fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose spectacular suicide touched off Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. Bouazizi, who was the sole support of his mother and five siblings, died Jan. 4, weeks after setting himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his wares by a city inspector.
Bouazizi’s gesture symbolized the despair of a people struggling against poverty, unemployment and rampant corruption, said Haroon Bouazzi, a Montreal computer scientist and spokesman for a local Tunisian pro-democracy organization.
“Every Tunisian felt he was this person,” Bouazzi said.
Bouazizi’s case was nothing new, said Bouazzi.
“What’s new is that this time, people said, “˜It’s enough.’ “
Bouazzi, 32 who came to Montreal 11 years ago, has been organizing demonstrations in front of the Tunisian consulate and film screenings on human-rights abuses in Tunisia for eight years. He said the events used to attract only a handful of people but Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution has galvanized the community.
“The people are still very angry,” said Bouazzi, who called on the Canadian government to help prosecute members of the former regime and to take an active role in restoring democracy to Tunisia.
On Thursday, the Tunisian ambassador, Mouldi Sakri, and Montreal consul Imed Sassi signed a letter announcing their resignation from Ben Ali’s party, the Rassemblement constitutionnel dÃ©mocratique.
“We can say today that a new page has been turned for Tunisia,” said Sakri, who said he supported a return to democracy and stability for the country of 10 million.
In the letter, he also called on the Canadian government to seize any property held by members of the deposed dictator’s family.
In 2008, Ben Ali’s son-in-law Mohamed Sakher El Materi bought a $2.5-million house in Westmount but its current occupants say el Materi has sold it.
PQ international affairs critic Louise Beaudoin charged Quebec’s Liberal government is dragging its feet when it comes to making members of ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali feel unwelcome here.
Beaudoin said it’s time Quebec stopped acting “like a small province” and made it clear what it thinks about the presence of the family here.
Trabelsi’s right-hand man, Hamadi Etouil, was said to have taken a Montreal-bound flight from Paris to join him last night.
PHILIP AUTHIER OF THE GAZETTE AND MARK KENNEDY OF POSTMEDIA NEWS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT