|The US was guessing at potential Ben Ali successors in 2006 but apparently did not foresee a popular uprising [AFP]
The United States was preparing for the end of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and assessing his potential successors as early as January 2006, a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks has revealed.
The cable from the US embassy in Tunisia, published by WikiLeaks on Monday,also says that Ben Ali is rumoured to have suffered from prostate cancer since 2003.
None of the five possible successors identified by the US embassy in Tunisia, including current prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, was likely to change Tunisia's policy or its relationship with the United States quickly, the cable said.
The excited talk of a "post-Ben Ali era," however, was muted in a series of four cables written five months later and also recently released by WikiLeaks. They mention only that Ben Ali had referred to himself as a future "'retired' president," with no departure timeline. The third cable in the series only noted a potential transition to a new government as something that would further benefit Ben Ali's family.
An unpredicted uprising
Ben Ali became president in a bloodless 1987 coup but was forced out of office on Friday after trying to weather a month of protests over unemployment and repressed civil liberties that began with a 26-year-old man setting himself on fire in December.
The US government has remained relatively quiet in its public statements and actions during the uprising, though president Barack Obama did issue a statement on Friday - after Ben Ali had fled - saying that the White House was "bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights we must all uphold" and that Tunisia should hold "free and fair elections in the near future."
It's unclear if the uprising caught the United States by surprise, but the 2006 cable makes no mention of any possibility that the long-time ruler could be overthrown by a social movement or that his power was built on anything but solid "dictatorial" grounds.
"The mere fact that an increasing number of Tunisians are talking about succession and the end of the Ben Ali era is remarkable," ambassador William Hudson wrote.
Despite the unpredicted social movement, the cable seems to have been accurate in one major respect: The potential successor deemed likeliest by Hudson, prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, remains in office and has been wielding increased power since Ben Ali's departure. If the cable's assessment is to be believed, this doesn't bode well for Tunisia's democratic protesters.
"None of the options suggest Tunisia will become more democratic, but the US-Tunisian bilateral relationship is likely to remain unaffected by the departure of Ben Ali," Hudson wrote.
The 'career technocrat' vs. the 'eminence grise'
The cable identifies five probable successors, including Ben Ali's wife, Leila, and Ghannouchi, who briefly took over the role of president after Ben Ali left.
In Hudson's assessment, Ghannouchi appears as the most likely successor: a "career technocrat and trained economist" who is well-liked and respected, even among average Tunisians.
Shortly after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday night, Ghannouchi went on state television to announce that he was assuming the duties of president, though such a move appears to have contradicted the Tunisian constitution.
Within 24 hours, after a ruling from the Constitutional Council, Ghannouchi ceded power to parliament speaker Fouad Mebazaa, though he still remains in charge of forming a unity government.
Ghannouchi's strongest competition for the top job, as described by Hudson, is Abdelaziz Ben Dhia, who served as Ben Ali's minister of state, special adviser and spokesman until being dismissed on Thursday in Ben Ali's last-ditch effort to placate the public and save his presidency.
Ben Dhia's long history of service and the good favour he enjoyed with both Ben Ali and his wife made him a likely candidate, though his age - he is currently 75 - meant that he would've been barred from running in the 2014 presidential election, Hudson wrote.
But Ben Dhia was also hurt by his reputation as an "'eminence grise' - the brilliant behind-the-scenes decision-maker in the palace" - a man whose secretive responsibilities caused "consternation" among average Tunisians, Hudson said.
More of the same
Analysing the scenarios in light of Ben Ali's possible prostate cancer, the embassy predicted that if Ben Ali were incapacitated or left office, Mebazaa's principal task as the interim president would be to organise elections and "maintain the party's hold on power."
"Mebazaa is a long-time ruling RCD party stalwart (a member of the RCD politburo, a former minister, and a 'survivor')," the cable states. (Mebazaa served under Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, who was overthrown by Ben Ali.)
Under the current constitution, the RCD also enjoys a comfortable advantage in politics. Those who want to run for president must belong to a party with at least one member in parliament and obtain signatures of support from 30 deputies or mayors.
"It is most likely that the next president would come from within the RCD given its history as Tunisia's founding party, its grass roots structure, and its interest in stability and continuity," the cable says.
None of the potential successors mentioned in the cable - including current foreign minister Kamel Morjane and Ali Chaouch, the minister of social affairs, solidarity, and Tunisians abroad - would likely make any significant changes to domestic or foreign policy, the cable states.
Morjane, who worked at the United Nations before being appointed defence minister in 2005, once had US support to be the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the cable notes.
Morjane "has been helpful as minister," it says. "However, we know little about his personal politics or ambitions."