2011-01-15 What the US state cables on Tunisia said

The US state cables have been credited with enormous importance in the Tunisian revolution. Preserved for the Tunisians by organizations such as Tunileaks and other online media, they may have provided the spark to an already very volatile situation. In any case, they enhance our understanding of the situation, as understood by the US embassy. Arguably the most interesting of the cables may be 09TUNIS492#1 which describes the US ambassador’s belief that the US cannot make the progress they wish to in the country while Ben Ali is president and outlines the embassy’s policy of using social media to communicate with the people in the country.

In 2006 and 2007 we see cables where France is accusing Tunisia of not cooperating on “counter-terrorism”.

2006/03/30: 06PARIS2069#1

intelligence-sharing relationships recently had become strained between Tunisia and France. The strain originated on the Tunisian side, said Ricard, and he assumed that it was due to political calculations. (Comment: Since a FM Douste-Blazy visit to Tunis last fall, the GOF has become more outspoken on human rights in Tunisia, though still much less so than the U.S. End comment.)

2007/01/26: 07PARIS322#1

France,s chief counterterrorism judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, told us on January 19 that a recent surge in overall GSPC activities worried French counterterrorism officials, who are convinced there is now a significantly higher threat against France and its interests abroad. Tunisian security services, he said, had essentially shut the French out, preferring to deny the existence of a threat.

Information exchange with Tunisia, he said, was now virtually non-existent. The Tunisian government was either in denial or did not know how to proceed and was shutting out the French. Morocco continues to be relatively reliable with information, with Algeria as, “as usual,” excellent on some days and like Tunisia on others.

2006/10/17: 06TUNIS2570#1

Suha Arafat acquires Tunisian nationality to the great puzzlement of the US ambassador.

We remain puzzled as to why Mrs. Arafat would want Tunisian citizenship, and why now, since she already enjoyed the privilege of a Tunisian diplomatic passport, and we doubt that she was eager to exercise her right to vote in Tunisia or become a member of the Tunisian National Assembly. The only other tangible benefit of citizenship is that Tunisian law forbids foreigners to own agricultural land — and Mrs. Arafat is not known to be an aspiring farmer. One possible motivation is that under Tunisian law, foreign participation in a totally non-exporting service industry cannot exceed 50 percent. Several months ago, Mrs. Arafat set up one such company — to build an international school in Tunis. Tunisian citizenship will allow her to control this company. As for what was in such a move for the GOT, Post suspects that a continuing desire on the part of the government to market itself as closely tied to the Palestinian people played a role. The GOT probably feels the need for some Palestinian “cover” during this time when newspapers are full of stories on the government’s campaign against the hijab (reftel). In addition, Mrs. Arafat is said to be good friends with the First Lady, Leila Ben Ali.

2007/11/16: 07TUNIS1489#1

In less than a year Suha Arafat’s Tunisian citizenship is revoked, prompting speculation from the US embassy, particulary regarding possible corruption surrounding closure of the Bouebdelli Schoola, a private school in competition with one owned by Tunisian first lady Leila Ben Ali. Other theories are discussed in the cable but not included here.

In a mid-October telcon with the Ambassador, Ms. Arafat blamed her ouster on the personal animus of First Lady Leila Ben Ali. “I can’t believe what she’s has done to me,” Arafat exclaimed, “I’ve lost everything!” She charged that all of her properties in Tunisia had been confiscated, even by falsifying documents transferring ownership. (Note: It is rumored that Mrs. Arafat had invested — and lost — some 2.5 million euros in the Carthage International School. End Note.) In addition, she said, her friends and colleagues in Tunisia, including her banker, had also come under pressure. “Anyone who supports me is punished.”

Mrs. Arafat attributed her ouster to her falling out with First Lady Leila Ben Ali over the Carthage International School, a new, private, for-profit school, of which they had been co-owners. According to Mrs. Arafat’s version of events, the dispute stemmed from Leila Ben Ali’s decision to force the closure of the Bouebdelli school (also known as by the name of its parent group, Le Fondation Louis Pasteur), a highly respected private school, from which many of Tunisia’s elite have graduated. (Note: The Bouebdelli school was notified in mid-May that the Minister of Education had ordered it to close, ostensibly for failure to comply with registration regulations. Public outcry ensued, fueled in part by a petition and letter-writing campaign organized by parents of Bouebdelli schoolchildren. Many local and international media reports criticized the decision to close the school as a flagrant attempt to stifle potential competition of the International School of Carthage. The fact that parents of Bouebdelli schoolchildren were encouraged to enroll their children at the Carthage school only served to fuel these charges, as did the August 29 Presidential decree in which President Ben Ali granted 1,794,600 Tunisian Dinars (approximately US $ 1.5 million) to the Carthage School, an estimated 25 percent of its operating budget.)

Other rumors have circulated with a different spin on the school story. According to this theory, it was Mrs. Arafat who overreached, not Leila Ben Ali. Specifically, it is said that Mrs. Arafat convinced the Ministry of Education to force the closure of the Bouebdelli School. She reportedly did so by invoking the name of Mrs. Ben Ali. Critically, though, according to this theory, Leila Ben Ali was not aware that her name was being invoked. Thus, the Tunisian First Lady was incensed when she learned about the school’s closure — and her alleged role in that decision — in the highly critical pieces in the local and international media. (Comment: The fact that the Bouebdelli School did not reopen, even after the revocation of Suha Arafat’s citizenship, would seem to cast doubt on the accuracy of this theory. End Comment.)

No doubt as a result of her tribulations, Mrs. Arafat was not shy about sharing with the Ambassador her negative impressions of President Ben Ali, his wife, and her family members, whom, she said, collectively represent a web of corruption. Drawing on her close contact with the first family over the past several years, she made several allegations, among them the following:
— President Ben Ali remains weakened by his battle with cancer (NFI);
— President Ben Ali spends all his time playing with his son and following him around the residence;
— President Ben Ali simply does what his wife asks him to do;
— Leila Ben Ali and her family are stealing everything of value in the country;
— Leila Ben Ali believes that she will succeed her husband as President of Tunisia;
— The members of Ben Ali’s extended family can do whatever they want with impunity, including the falsification of documents;
— Leila Ben Ali dropped the American curriculum that had been planned for the Carthage school because she fundamentally wants nothing to do with Americans.

Suha Arafat has an ax to grind with the Ben Ali clan, so her allegations must be taken with a big grain of salt. Although difficult to prove, there is a certain ring of truth to the stories of corruption swirling around the school issue. While it is not clear who was behind the Bouebdelli closure, the ready-made pool of students for whom Bouebdelli was no longer an option was certainly convenient for filling the classrooms in the Carthage School’s opening year. Indeed, during a mid-September visit to the Carthage School, MgmtCouns learned that the school is filled to capacity. Beyond that, no school in recent memory has been constructed so quickly, had municipally provided access roads, street signs, and traffic lights installed so efficiently, or had such ease in getting certified (although it has not yet received the French accreditation the Bouebdelli School had). Nor is it common practice for the GOT to so generously subsidize a for-profit educational institution. Finally, it must be noted that the school affair, while rather blatant, is not an isolated case of favoritism and corruption.

2008/03/03: 08TUNIS193#1

In 2008 Ben Ali meets with Assistant Secretary of State David Welch and co-operation is very forthcoming.

A/S Welch thanked Ben Ali and expressed appreciation for his commitment to cooperation on counter-terrorism. He said he had two specific requests: 1) access for US officials to interview Tunisian terrorist Noureddine Taam and 2) a commitment to accept the Tunisian
detainees in Guantanamo on the basis of earlier assurances on treatment. Ben Ali responded that the United States would have immediate access to Taam. (NB. Additional details reported in GRPO channels.) He continued that the GOT would accept the detainees and do so on the basis of the Tunisian constitution. (NB. The Tunisian constitution offers guarantees on human rights, humane treatment and respect for international commitments.) Ben Ali emphasized again that on counter-terrorism and intelligence Tunisia would “cooperate with the United States without inhibitions” and the cooperation would be “total.”

2008/03/03: 08RABAT194

At the same time, corruption is obvious.

He expressed concern about rapacity and brittleness in Tunisia.

Mansouri was surprised when Welch expressed concern about Tunisia. Mansouri said Morocco is quite concerned about the greed and brittleness of the Ben Ali regime. Mansouri added that the December 2006/January 2007 events had scared the GOT.

He noted that while counterterrorism cooperation must work, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika had recently completely rejected a Tunisian initiative to organize a security summit of Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) members.

But the US seems to value Tunisian co-operation in the region.

2008/03/03: 08ALGIERS261#1

Bouteflika complained that the U.S. treats Algeria as “second class” compared to the preferential treatment it gives to Tunisia and Morocco.

2008/06/04: 08MADRID620#1

The Ministers of Interior of Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, Malta, Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, and Tunisia agreed May 22 to strengthen counter-terrorism information exchange.

2009/06/16: 09TUNIS372#1

A 2009 cable tells of an author criticizing the Ben Ali regime including the “duality” between official discourse and the reality on the ground, the stifling of political liberties and omnipotent controls on the media, illusory freedom of association and “the rule of law is more fiction than reality.”

Asked whether he had also been in touch with other western embassies, he said that he had avoided reaching out to the French, in particular, arguing that Ambassador Degallaix is seen as Ben Ali’s Ambassador to French President Sarkozy, not vice versa. In addition, he alleged that the GOT has improperly given Ambassador Degallaix a villa, which is registered in his daughter’s name, on rue Sidi Dhrif, near the President’s own residence. He did not offer any evidence of this alleged corruption or explain how this knowledge came to him.

He recounted an incident in which Ben Ali came off as “very uneducated” in the meeting, failing to grasp some of the key points … Ben Ali abruptly told him that he wanted a 50-50 stake in the enterprise. Fearful of responding in the negative, he said he “played dumb,” pretending not to understand the President’s proposition.

He offered a theory as to what was behind the GOT’s decision to revoke Suha Arafat’s Tunisian citizenship in 2007. (Note: Reftel also reports on this incident.) He said that he had heard that Leila Ben Ali at that time had been scheming to marry off an 18 year-old niece (NFI) to UAE Prime Minister and Dubai Ruler Sheik Mohamed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, one of whose wives is the half-sister of the King of Jordan. According to this rumor, Suha Arafat warned Jordanian Queen Rania about Leila Ben Ali’s plans. Word of Arafat’s intervention got back to the Tunisian First Lady, who turned against Arafat and soon forced her out of Tunisia. 

He is extremely well respected and considered an upstanding member of the community. While we might doubt the veracity of some of the rumors that he shared with us, we have no reason to doubt his account of his conversation with President Ben Ali, in which he described the President as seeking a 50 percent stake in his private university. We routinely hear allegations of corruption, and such allegations are inherently difficult to prove. The anecdote strikes us as credible. It is also significant in that it implicates Ben Ali himself, while so many other reported incidents of corruption involve his extended family.

2009/06/18: 09TUNIS399#1

The US ambassador discusses Tunisian prison conditions with International Red Cross Committee Regional (ICRC) Delegate Yves Arnoldy who had concerns about overcrowding and treatment of prisoners. He did not specifically recommend against transferring prisoners from Guantanamo. He asked to be kept informed about transferees and thanked the US government for its financial support of the ICRC.

2008/06/23: 08TUNIS679

This was the most explosive of the cables and the one that caused the most anger. It is here in its entirety.

SUBJECT: CORRUPTION IN TUNISIA: WHAT’S YOURS IS MINE

According to Transparency International’s annual survey and Embassy contacts’ observations, corruption in Tunisia is getting worse. Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants. Beyond the stories of the First Family’s shady dealings, Tunisians report encountering low-level corruption as well in interactions with the police, customs, and a variety of government ministries. The economic impact is clear, with Tunisian investors — fearing the long-arm of “the Family” — forgoing new investments, keeping domestic investment rates low and unemployment high (Refs G, H). These persistent rumors of corruption, coupled with rising inflation and continued unemployment, have helped to fuel frustration with the GOT and have contributed to recent protests in southwestern Tunisia (Ref A). With those at the top believed to be the worst offenders, and likely to remain in power, there are no checks in the system. End Summary.

The Sky’s the Limit

According to Transparency International’s 2007 index, the perception is that corruption in Tunisia is getting worse. Tunisia’s ranking on the index dropped from 43 in 2005 to 61 in 2007 (out of 179 countries) with a score of 4.2 (with 1 the most corrupt and 10 the least corrupt). Although corruption is hard to verify and even more difficult to quantify, our contacts all agree that the situation is headed in the wrong direction. When asked whether he thought corruption was better, worse, or the same, XXXXXXXXXXXX exclaimed in exasperation, “Of course it’s getting worse!” He stated that corruption could not but increase as the culprits looked for more and more opportunities. Joking about Tunisia’s rising inflation, he said that even the cost of bribes was up. “A traffic stop used to cost you 20 dinars and now it’s up to 40 or 50!”

All in the Family

President Ben Ali’s extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption. Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of “the Family” is enough to indicate which family you mean. Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage. Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Ben Ali, and her extended family — the Trabelsis — provoke the greatest ire from Tunisians. Along with the numerous allegations of Trabelsi corruption are often barbs about their lack of education, low social status, and conspicuous consumption. While some of the complaints about the Trabelsi clan seem to emanate from a disdain for their nouveau riche inclinations, Tunisians also argue that the Trabelsis strong arm tactics and flagrant abuse of the system make them easy to hate. Leila’s brother Belhassen Trabelsi is the most notorious family member and is rumored to have been involved in a wide-range of corrupt schemes from the recent Banque de Tunisie board shakeup (Ref B) to property expropriation and extortion of bribes. Leaving the question of their progenitor aside, Belhassen Trabelsi’s holdings are extensive and include an airline, several hotels, one of Tunisia’s two private radio stations, car assembly plants, Ford distribution, a real estate development company, and the list goes on. (See Ref K for a more extensive list of his holdings.) Yet, Belhassen is only one of Leila’s ten known siblings, each with their own children. Among this large extended family, Leila’s brother Moncef and nephew Imed are also particularly important economic actors. 

The President is often given a pass, with many Tunisians arguing that he is being used by the Trabelsi clan and is unaware of their shady dealings. XXXXXXXXXXXX a strong supporter of the government and member of XXXXXXXXXXXX, told the Ambassador that the problem is not Ben Ali, but “the Family” going too far and breaking the rules. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe Ben Ali is not aware, at least generally, of the growing corruption problem. This might also reflect the seeming geographical divisions between the Ben Ali and Trabelsi fiefdoms, with the Ben Ali clan reportedly focused on the central coastal regional and the Trabelsi clan operating out of the greater Tunis area and therefore, generating the bulk of the gossip. The Ben Ali side of the Family and his children and in-laws from his first marriage are also implicated in a number of stories. Ben Ali has seven siblings, of which his late brother Moncef was a known drug trafficker, sentenced in absentia to 10 years prison in the French courts. Ben Ali has three children with his first wife Naima Kefi: Ghaouna, Dorsaf and Cyrine. They are married respectively to Slim Zarrouk, Slim Chiboub, and Marouane Mabrouk — all significant economic powers. 

This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land

With real estate development booming and land prices on the rise, owning property or land in the right location can either be a windfall or a one-way ticket to expropriation. In summer 2007, Leila Ben Ali received a desirable tract of land in Carthage for free from the GOT in order to build the for-profit Carthage International School (Ref F). In addition to the land, the school received a 1.8 million dinar (US $1.5 million) gift from the GOT, and within a matter of weeks the GOT had built new roads and stoplights to facilitate school access. It has been reported that Ms. Ben Ali has sold the Carthage International School to Belgian investors, but the Belgian Embassy has as yet been unable to confirm or discount the rumor. XXXXXXXXXXXX asserted that the school was indeed sold for a huge, but undisclosed sum.He noted any such sale would be pure profit since Ms. Ben Ali’s received land, infrastructure, and a hefty bonus at no cost. 

Construction on an enormous and garish mansion has been underway next to the Ambassador’s residence for the past year. Multiple sources have told us that the home is that of Sakhr Materi, President Ben Ali’s son-in-law and owner of Zitouna Radio. This prime real estate was reportedly expropriated from its owner by the GOT for use by the water authority, then later granted to Materi for private use. A cafe owner recounted a similar tale to an Embassy employee, reporting that Belhassen Trabelsi forced him to trade in a cafe he previously owned in a prime location for his current cafe. The cafe owner stated Trabelsi told him he could do whatever he wanted there; if 50 dinar bribes to the police were not effective, Trabelsi said the owner had only to call him and he would “take care of it.” 

Yacht Wanted

In 2006, Imed and Moaz Trabelsi, Ben Ali’s nephews, are reported to have stolen the yacht of a well-connected French businessman, Bruno Roger, Chairman of Lazard Paris. The theft, widely reported in the French press, came to light when the yacht, freshly painted to cover distinguishing characteristics, appeared in the Sidi Bou Said harbor. Roger’s prominence in the French establishment created a potential irritant in bilateral relations and according to reports, the yacht was swiftly returned. The stolen yacht affair resurfaced in early 2008 due to an Interpol warrant for the two Trabelsis. In May, the brothers were brought before Tunisian courts, in a likely effort to satisfy international justice. The outcome of their case has not been reported.

Show Me Your Money

Tunisia’s financial sector remains plagued by serious allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement. Tunisian business people joke that the most important relationship you can have is with your banker, reflecting the importance of personal connections rather than a solid business plan in securing financing. The legacy of relationship-based banking is a sector-wide rate of non-performing loans that is 19 percent, which remains high but is lower than a high of 25 percent in 2001 (Ref I). Embassy contacts are quick to point out that many of these loans are held by wealthy Tunisian business people who use their close ties to the regime to avoid repayment (Ref E). Lax oversight makes the banking sector an excellent target of opportunity, with multiple stories of “First Family” schemes. The recent reshuffle at Banque de Tunisie (Ref B), with the Foreign Minister’s wife assuming the presidency and Belhassen Trabelsi named to the board, is the latest example. According to a representative from Credit Agricole, Marouane Mabrouk, another of Ben Ali’s sons-in-law, purchased a 17 percent share of the former Banque du Sud (now Attijari Bank) shares immediately prior to the bank’s privatization. This 17 percent share was critical to acquiring controlling interest in the bank since the privatization represented only a 35 percent share in the bank. The Credit Agricole rep stated that Mabrouk shopped his shares to foreign banks with a significant premium, with the tender winner, Spanish-Moroccan Santander-Attijariwafa ultimately paying an off the books premium to Mabrouk. XXXXXXXXXXXX recounted that when he was still at his bank he used to receive phone calls from panicked clients who stated that Belhassen Trabelsi had asked them for money. He did not indicate whether he advised them to pay.

The Trickle Down Effect 

While the stories of high-level, Family corruption are among the most flagrant and oft-repeated, Tunisians report encountering low-level corruption more frequently in their daily lives. Speeding tickets can be ignored, passports can be expedited, and customs can be bypassed — all for the right price. Donations to the GOT’s 26-26 Fund for development or to the Bessma Society for the Handicapped — Leila Ben Ali’s favored charity — are also believed to grease the wheels. Hayet Louani (protect), a well-connected member of Parliament, faced increased pressure from the GOT after refusing several “requests” to donate money to Trabelsi’s soccer team. XXXXXXXXXXXX reported that customs inspectors demanded 10,000 dinars to get his goods through customs; he did not reveal whether or not he acquiesced to the demand. 

Nepotism is also believed to play a significant role in awarding scholarships and offering jobs. Knowing the right people at the Ministry of Higher Education can determine admission to the best schools or can mean a scholarship for study abroad. An Embassy FSN stated that the Director of International Cooperation, a long-time contact, offered to give his son a scholarship to Morocco on the basis of their acquaintance. If you do not know someone, money can also do the trick. There are many stories of Tunisians paying clerks at the Ministry of Higher Education to get their children into better schools than were merited by their test scores. Government jobs — a prize in Tunisia — are also believed to be doled out on the basis of connections. Leila Ben Ali’s late mother, Hajja Nana, is also reported to have acted as a broker for both school admissions and government job placement, providing her facilitation services for a commission. Among the complaints from the protestors in the mining area of Gafsa were allegations that jobs in the Gafsa Phosphate Company were given on the basis of connections and bribery. 

 

Mob Rule?

The numerous stories of familial corruption are certainly galling to many Tunisians, but beyond the rumors of money-grabbing is a frustration that the well-connected can live outside the law. One Tunisian lamented that Tunisia was no longer a police state, it had become a state run by the mafia. “Even the police report to the Family!” he exclaimed. With those at the top believed to be the worst offenders, and likely to remain in power, there are no checks in the system. The daughter of a former governor recounted that Belhassen Trabelsi flew into her father’s office in a rage — even throwing an elderly office clerk to the ground — after being asked to abide by laws requiring insurance coverage for his amusement park. Her father wrote a letter to President Ben Ali defending his decision and denouncing Trabelsi’s tactics. The letter was never answered, and he was removed from his post shortly thereafter. The GOT’s strong censorship of the press ensures that stories of familial corruption are not published. The Family’s corruption remains a red line that the press cross at their own peril. Although the February imprisonment of comedian Hedi Oula Baballah was ostensibly drug-related, human rights groups speculate his arrest was punishment for a 30 minute stand-up routine spoofing the President and his in-laws (Tunis D). International NGOs have made the case that the harsh prison conditions faced by journalist Slim Boukdhir, who was arrested for failing to present his ID card and insulting a police officer, are directly related to his articles criticizing government corruption. Corruption remains a topic relegated to hushed voices with quick glances over the shoulder.

The Elephant in the Room

Several Tunisian economists argue that it does not matter whether corruption is actually increasing because “perception is reality.” The perception of increasing corruption and the persistent rumors of shady backroom dealings has a negative impact on the economy regardless of the veracity. Contacts tell us they afraid to invest for fear that the family will suddenly want a cut. “What’s the point?” Alaya Bettaieb asked, “The best case scenario is that my investment succeeds and someone important tries to take a cut.” Persistently low domestic investment rates bear this out (Ref H). Foreign bank accounts, while illegal, are reportedly commonplace. A recent Ministry of Finance amnesty to encourage Tunisians to repatriate their funds has been an abject failure. Bettaeib stated that he plans to incorporate his new business in Mauritania or Malta, citing fear of unwanted interference. Many economists and business people note that strong investment in real estate and land reflects the lack of confidence in the economy and an effort to keep their money safe (Ref C). 

Thus far, foreign investors have been undeterred, and according to Tunisian business contacts, largely unaffected. Foreign investment continues to flow in at a healthy rate, even excluding the privatizations and huge Gulf projects which have yet to get underway. Foreign investors more rarely report encountering the type of extortion faced by Tunisians, perhaps reflecting that foreign investors have recourse to their own embassies and governments. British Gas representatives told the Ambassador they had not encountered any impropriety. XXXXXXXXXXXX stated that several years ago Belhassen Trabelsi attempted to strong arm a German company producing in the offshore sector, but that after the German Embassy intervened Trabelsi was explicitly cautioned to avoid offshore companies. Despite pronouncements about increasing domestic investment, the GOT focuses heavily on increasing FDI flows to the country, particularly in the offshore sector. Nevertheless, there are still several examples of foreign companies or investors being pressured into joining with the “right” partner. The prime example remains McDonald’s failed entry into Tunisia. When McDonald’s chose to limit Tunisia to one franchisee not of the GOT’s choosing, the whole deal was scuttled by the GOT’s refusal to grant the necessary authorization and McDonald’s unwillingness to play the game by granting a license to a franchisee with Family connections. 

Comment

Although the petty corruption rankles, it is the excesses of President Ben Ali’s family that inspire outrage among Tunisians. With Tunisians facing rising inflation and high unemployment, the conspicuous displays of wealth and persistent rumors of corruption have added fuel to the fire. The recent protests in the mining region of Gafsa provide a potent reminder of the discontent that remains largely beneath the surface. This government has based its legitimacy on its ability to deliver economic growth, but a growing number of Tunisians believe those as the top are keeping the benefits for themselves. 

Corruption is a problem that is at once both political and economic. The lack of transparency and accountability that characterize Tunisia’s political system similarly plague the economy, damaging the investment climate and fueling a culture of corruption. For all the talk of a Tunisian economic miracle and all the positive statistics, the fact that Tunisia’s own investors are steering clear speaks volumes. Corruption is the elephant in the room; it is the problem everyone knows about, but no one can publicly acknowledge. End Comment. 

2009/06/23: 09TUNIS415#1

The Tunisian government informs German, Italian, Spanish, UK and Canadian governments that the Tunisian government wants the tunisian prisoners in Guantanamo returned to them. Tunisia requests that the European governments do not accept the US request to take Tunisian detainees. There is concern that Tunisia’s image would suffer if the detainees were sent to other countries.

The Canadian Ambassador noted the GOT has offered, as evidence that it does not torture, the case of Imam Said Jaziri who was repatriated from Canada to Tunisia despite allegations that he would be mistreated. The Canadian Ambassador said the comparison between Jaziri and the Guantanamo detainees is “crap”, explaining that Jaziri was a petty criminal and not accused of terrorism. The Canadian government reviewed Jaziri’s case carefully and decided he could be transferred since he did have links with terrorism. The Canadian decision, Picard suggested, might well have been otherwise if Jaziri had been accused of terrorism. 

The Canadian Ambassador said the GOT’s statements that it does not torture are “bullshit.” The Canadian Ambassador (protect) said he had direct, first hand evidence of torture/mistreatment of a prisoner that lasted several months. The Canadian and German Ambassadors agreed that anyone in Tunisian prisons on terrorism charges is at risk of mistreatment or torture. 

The GOT clearly and strongly wants the Tunisian detainees in Guantanamo returned home. As we suggested in Ref A, Washington agencies may wish to consider whether to offer to return the Tunisian detainees if the GOT agrees to permit US access to the first two transferees and ongoing access to any future transferees. Such an understanding would need to include a mechanism to address the problems that may arise. While there is no absolute guarantee against mistreatment, such an understanding would provide transferees additional protection. Whether the GOT would accept such an arrangement is another matter. We are not optimistic, but it is worth considering. If Washington decides to continue with efforts to transfer the Tunisian detainees to third countries, we need to officially inform the GOT at a high-level and soon. 

2009/07/17: 09TUNIS492#1

Tunisian independence is annoying to the US government, but Tunisia remains strategically important to the US. Ben Ali’s departure will be welcomed. The US ambassador has set a priority on engaging the people of Tunisia, especially the young, and emphasizes using online social media to deliver the US message. “The Embassy is already using Facebook as a communication tool. In addition, we have the Ambassador’s blog, a relatively new undertaking that is attracting attention.”

Tunisia has big problems. President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic and there is no clear successor. Many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities. … Major change in Tunisia will have to wait for Ben Ali’s departure.

On foreign policy …its goal has been to &get along with everyone.

Finally, although Tunisians have been deeply angry over the war in Iraq and perceived US bias towards Israel, most still admire the &the American dream. Despite the anger at US foreign policy, we see a growing desire for English-language instruction, a wish for more educational and TUNIS 00000492 002 OF 005 scientific exchanges, and a belief in the American culture of innovation. Tunisians see these as important for their future.

Despite Tunisia’s economic and social progress, its record on political freedoms is poor. Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems. The GOT can point to some political progress in the last decade, including an end to prior review of books and ICRC access to many prisons. But for every step forward there has been another back, for example the recent takeover of important private media outlets by individuals close to President Ben Ali.

The problem is clear: Tunisia has been ruled by the same president for 22 years. He has no successor. And, while President Ben Ali deserves credit for continuing many of the progressive policies of President Bourguiba, he and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people. They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power. And, corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, First Lady Leila Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her; even those close to the government express dismay at her reported behavior. Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia’s high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.

We need to keep the focus, especially with 2009 an election year in Tunisia. Ben Ali is certain to be reelected by a wide margin in a process that will be neither free nor fair. In this context, we should continue to underscore the importance of these issues, and to maintain contacts with the few opposition parties and civil society groups critical of the regime.

In addition to talking to the GOT, we need to engage directly with the Tunisian people, especially youth. The Embassy is already using Facebook as a communication tool. In addition, we have the Ambassador’s blog, a relatively new undertaking that is attracting attention. Over the past couple of years, the Embassy has substantially increased its outreach to Tunisian youth through concerts, film festivals, and other events. Our information resource center and America’s Corners are popular ways for Tunisians to access unfiltered news and information. We should continue and increase such programs.

In the end, serious change here will have to await Ben Ali’s departure. But President Obama’s new tone and policies may create a window of pportunity. We should use it to make overtures to the GOT in areas where they seek our involvement or assistance. And, we should seek to engage all Tunisians (especially the young) in ways that will improve the future for both our countries.

2009/07/27: 09TUNIS516#1

Details of a meeting between the US ambassador and presidential son-in-law and wealthy businessman Mohamed Sakher El Materi, and his wife, Nesrine Ben Ali El Materi. The president’s son-in-law brags of his influence and is surrounded by evidence of wealth. The US ambassador provides detailed descriptions of the extravagant dinner provided, along with complaints that the Tunisian government is slow in allowing McDonald’s franchises in the country. El Matari “complained about the unhealthy food served by McDonald’s, however, adding it is making Americans fat.”

El-Materi Unplugged: Home/Personal Life

El-Materi’s house is spacious, and directly above and along the Hammamet public beach. The compound is large and well guarded by government security. It is close to the center of Hammamet, with a view of the fort and the southern part of the town. The house was recently renovated and includes an infinity pool and a terrace of perhaps 50 meters. While the house is done in a modern style (and largely white), there are ancient artifacts everywhere: Roman columns, frescoes and even a lion’s head from which water pours into the pool. El Materi insisted the pieces are real. He hopes to move into his new (and palatial) house in Sidi Bou Said in eight to ten months.

The dinner included perhaps a dozen dishes, including fish, steak, turkey, octopus, fish couscous and much more. The quantity was sufficient for a very large number of guests. Before dinner a wide array of small dishes were served, along with three different juices (including Kiwi juice, not normally available here). After dinner, he served ice cream and frozen yoghurt he brought in by plane from Saint Tropez, along with blueberries and raspberries and fresh fruit and chocolate cake. (NB. El Materi and Nesrine had just returned from Saint Tropez on their private jet after two weeks vacation. El Materi was concerned about his American pilot finding a community here. The Ambassador said he would be pleased to invite the pilot to appropriate American community events.)

El Materi has a large tiger (“Pasha”) on his compound, living in a cage. He acquired it when it was a few weeks old. The tiger consumes four chickens a day. (Comment: The situation reminded the Ambassador of Uday Hussein’s lion cage in Baghdad.) El Materi had staff everywhere. There were at least a dozen people, including a butler from Bangladesh and a nanny from South Africa. (NB. This is extraordinarily rare in Tunisia, and very expensive.)

They have three children, two girls and a boy. Leila is four and another daughter that is about 10 months. Their boy is adopted and is two years old. The youngest daughter is a Canadian citizen, by virtue of birth in Canada. The family’s favorite vacation destination spot is the Maldives Islands.

El Materi said he has begun an exercise and diet regime. He has, he said, recently lost weight (it was visibly true). El Materi said he eats in a “balanced” way. He had just spent an hour on a bike, he claimed. Nesrine said she gets no exercise.

Both El Materi and Nesrine speak English, although their vocabulary and grammar are limited. They are clearly eager to strengthen their English. Nesrine said she loves Disney World, but had put off a trip this year because of H1N1 flu. Nesrine has, for sometime, had Tamiflu nearby (even taking it on trips). Originally it was out of fear of bird flu. She packs it for El Materi too when he travels. Nesrine said she has visited several US cities. El Materi had only been to Illinois recently in connection with the purchase of a plane.

Throughout the evening, El Materi often struck the Ambassador as demanding, vain and difficult. He is clearly aware of his wealth and power, and his actions reflected little finesse. He repeatedly pointed out the lovely view from his home and frequently corrected his staff, issued orders and barked reprimands. Despite this, El Materi was aware of his affect on the people around him and he showed periodic kindness. He was unusually solicitous and helpful to the Ambassador’s wife, who is disabled. Occasionally, he seemed to be seeking approval. One western Ambassador in Tunis, who knows El Materi, has commented that he has western-style political skills in his willingness to engage with ordinary citizens. It is an uncommon trait here.

El Materi, in recent months, has been ever more visible in the local diplomatic community. He has clearly decided (or been told) to serve as a point of contact between the regime and key ambassadors. Nesrine, at age 23, appeared friendly and interested, but nave and clueless. She reflected the very sheltered, privileged and wealthy life she has led. As for the dinner itself, it was similar to what one might experience in a Gulf country, and out of the ordinary for Tunisia.Most striking of all, however, was the opulence with which El Materi and Nesrine live. Their home in Hammamet was impressive, with the tiger adding to the impression of “over the top.” Even more extravagant is their home still under construction in Sidi Bou Said. That residence, from its outward appearance, will be closer to a palace. It dominates the Sidi Bou Said skyline from some vantage points and has been the occasion of many private, critical comments. The opulence with which El Materi and Nesrine live and their behavior make clear why they and other members of Ben Ali’s family are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians. The excesses of the Ben Ali family are growing.

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