Row over Sophie Marsa a microcosm of Tunisia's post-Ben Ali adjustment

In Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the seaside town of La Marsa: a grand old house at the centre of a bitter land dispute involving a company allegedly linked to Tunisia's ousted president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, via Amira Mahjoub, a niece of the former first lady, Leila Trabelsi.

LA MARSA // For a glimpse at the future of Tunisia, look no farther than number 39 Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the seaside town of La Marsa: a grand old house at the centre of a bitter land dispute.

Built in 1927 and known as Sophie Marsa, the house is a neoclassical palace of high ceilings, marble wainscoting and white balustrades. One story puts French generals there; another the mistress of Benito Mussolini.

Today the property is contested by long-time tenants and a development company linked to the family of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's ousted former president.

With the two sides locked in a court battle, the affair illustrates a key part of Tunisia's democratic transition: addressing claims of corruption involving Mr Ben Ali and his extended family.

The stand-off began one afternoon in June 2009, when tenants were startled by a loud crash from the garden.

"I dashed down to the street and found a tractor breaking the garden wall," said Moncef Ben Rhouma, a watch repairman and father of four who has since emerged as a leader of the six families living in the building.

With the tractor were workmen led by Slim Ben Mansour and Habib Mzabi, the co-owners of La Renaissance, a development company. Also present was Amira Mahjoub, a niece of the former first lady, Leila Trabelsi, who last year married Mr Mzabi, said Mr Ben Rhouma.

As other tenants poured into the street, Mr Ben Rhouma moved to block the tractor. "You may kill me, but you will not enter the garden," he said.

For more than an hour the two sides argued. Finally Mr Ben Mansour called the police.

Mr Ben Rhouma and 14 female tenants were detained, he said, with police bullying the women into signing pledges not to impede La Renaissance.

Meanwhile, workmen contracted by La Renaissance began building Residence Amira, a housing complex of 12 apartments whose half-finished shell towers over Sophie Marsa. The complex is tall and L-shaped, enveloping Sophie Marsa in a half-cocoon, blocking its former view on the avenue and obliterating a venerable garden.

"This is where the path to the garden gate used to be," said Faouzia Ben Djamia, a retired dietician, pointing to a wall of undressed brick. Then she took out a photo of the garden path of her childhood: smooth flagstones, arbours of jasmine and a blue metal gate.

According to Mr Ben Rhouma, a court ruling in 2009 upheld the right of Sophie Marsa's tenants to have the first opportunity to buy the property, invalidating its sale four years earlier to an outside buyer. "At the last minute, that buyer sold the property to La Renaissance, because the Trabelsis were with them," Mr Ben Rhouma said.

Mr Ben Mansour, however, says that Sophie Marsa's tenants missed a chance to buy the property in 2002, and that its sale to La Renaissance in 2009 was legal. He also denies involvement by Amira Mahjoub or other members of Mr Ben Ali's family.

"When we began construction, Habib didn't even know Amira," he said, referring to Mr Mzabi and Mrs Mahjoub. "They didn't get married until last August." According to US diplomatic cables leaked last year by the online whistle-blower WikiLeaks, the families of Mr Ben Ali and Mrs Trabelsi forced their way into many companies and business deals in Tunisia.

Since Mr Ben Ali's departure, Tunisian authorities have sought to hunt down family members accused of theft and corruption, while their assets have been seized in Tunisia and abroad.

In January, Tunisia's justice ministry accused Amira Mahjoub of illegally transferring money from the country's central bank, one of dozens of Ben Ali relatives placed under investigation.

Those investigations will involve combing through a vast paper trail left by business transactions, seeking irregularities that may provide evidence of wrongdoing.

Mr Ben Ali's family documented even crooked business deals to create "a patina of legality", said Peter Schraeder, a political science professor at Chicago's Loyola University and an expert on Tunisia. "And when you take property within a legal process, it's harder for people to get it back."

After Mr Ben Ali's departure, Sophie Marsa's tenants filed a lawsuit against La Renaissance, demanding that the state seize the property and allow them to buy it at fair market value determined by courts.

"They've gone to court, and we've gone to court, and the court will decide," said Mr Ben Mansour. For now, he is pressing ahead with construction of Residence Amira.

"Well, they've built it, and we can't go backwards," said Mr Ben Rhouma, gazing up at the structure one recent afternoon. "But we want our apartments. As for the garden, it's finished."