A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wikileaks Cables on Tunisia: Background to the Current Troubles

I have only occasionally cited the ongoing Wikileaks revelations for reasons I've previously expressed (and to make things worse, in Zimbabwe the opposition leader Prime Minister is being threatened with trial because of a Wikileaks cable). On the other hand, much as I may dislike the indiscriminate nature of the leaks, the documents are out there in public now, and can shed light on current events. Take three cables released earlier this month from the US Embassy in Tunis, which shed light on the roots of the current protests. I commend them as essential background reading

First is a 2008 report on corruption in Tunisia. Readers of opposition blogs or the French media may have heard much of it before, but it is interesting to see it in an Ambassador's cable. It spells out the extent of alleged corruption, especially among the First Lady's family, the Trabelsis. One example among many:

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.
Second, a 2009 report on the state of US-Tunisia relations generally, with a different take than that expressed in official statements. Read the whole thing, but the "Summary" runs:

By many measures, Tunisia should be a close US ally. But it is not. While we share some key values and the country has a strong record on development, 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. Extremism poses a continuing threat. Compounding the problems, the GOT brooks no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Instead, it seeks to impose ever greater control, often using the police. The result: Tunisia is troubled and our relations are too.

The third is a report on a July 2009 dinner between the US Ambassador and his wife and Mohammed Sakher El Materi and his wife, son-in-law and daughter of Ben Ali. Materi is often mentioned as a possible successor to Ben Ali if the First Lady has any say in the matter, as she plans to. While Materi is described as cooperative and friendly, we also hear this:

¶13. (S) 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.)

It's a revealing report on a man still largely unknown to non-Tunisians.

1 comment:

didi said...

it's worst than saddam's regime
it's one family that think Tunisia belongs to them... There is no account of where the money goes... people are starving and tourists should'nt go there