|Diplomatic cables show the US had an almost startlingly clear view of what would unfold in Tunisia [Reuters]|
A four-part series of US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks shows that the US knew about the extent of corruption and discontent in Tunisia, and chose to support Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the now deposed Tunisian president, regardless.
Written in June of 2006 by William Hudson, the US ambassador to Tunisia, the memos were composed just four months after Donald Rumsfeld, the then-US secretary of defence, visited Tunisia to discuss expanding military ties between the two countries, with the official statement released on the visit lauding Tunisia’s “economic and social progress.”
The first of the four diplomatic missives focused on the economic promise of Tunisia, where, the cable pointed out, the country had the highest per capita income in north Africa, bested only by South Africa on the continent, with steady economic growth and a relatively stable economic environment.
However, the memo mentioned that things likely would not remain so rosy, with mounting unemployment and a failure to produce enough jobs to employ the growing number of university graduates. The cable showed that the US state department even had a very pretty good idea of how – and when – the issue of joblessness among the youth would reach a boiling point:
Tunisia’s five percent GDP growth rate has historically created approximately 70,000 new jobs annually, but experts note that over six percent growth is required to create the extra jobs that university graduates will demand by 2010 when approximately 80,000 job seekers enter the economy annually.
Furthermore, the cable, released by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, indicated that there was frustration among the general population who felt that only those with “connections” – meaning corrupt ties – could get ahead, and this “perception” of the lack of opportunity spelled the need for imminent, rapid change:
… a new element is clearly emerging – younger and desiring more rapid progress, impatient to carve out their own livelihoods, reactive to restrictions on the spirit and energy of the most talented and educated citizens, and disdainful of the persistent government pronounced directives of a planned economy.
Multiple levels of corruption
The second cable focused more on the rampant corruption consuming Tunisian society. It academically broke down the types of corruption into four categories, describing how each one takes its toll on Tunisian people:
First, there is basic bribery and extortion, which most commonly is seen among the police and security forces. Tunisia’s “police state”… Any infraction can result in the seizure of ones documents, which requires hours of subsequent bureaucratic red tape to resolve.
The most recent protests in the country were touched off on December 17, when Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, attempted to commit suicide via self-immolation after police confiscated the produce he was selling because he lacked the proper permit.
Also mentioned are “bureaucratic” corruption (whereby only a facade of accountability is maintained), “influential” corruption (providing government officials with luxuries and lucrative business contracts), and “first family” corruption, referring directly to Ben Ali’s family:
Despite increasingly liberal economic legislation, all key decisions, especially related to investment and privatization, are made at the highest levels of the government – probably by the President himself. This arrangement has permitted President Ben Ali’s extended family (siblings, in-laws, and distant relatives) to become aware of, to assert interests in, and to carve out domains in virtually every important sector of the Tunisian economy. .. People are now convinced that the First Family is an insatiable economic animal bent on gratuitous enrichment and unchecked influence-wielding.
The cable reveals that the US understood the full thrust of the Ben Ali family’s ability to manipulate laws and regulations for their own personal gain as it detailed instances of regulations and police were changed and circumvented for profit, even managing to bully fast-food chain McDonald’s out of the country as the company did not choose “the right partner” to set up shop in the country.
No prospect for change
Conspicuous consumption – from extravagant properties to luxury cars – was not common in Tunisia ten years ago. Tunisians are increasingly frustrated with this new development and are confused about its relevance to their daily lives. Under President Bourguiba, Tunisians focused on achieving a good education and comfortable lifestyle, both goals Bourguiba himself embodied. Today, elite Tunisians boldly, if not publicly, denounce Ben Ali and the Trabelsi family as uneducated and uncultured nouveaux riches whose conspicuous consumption is an affront to all patriotic Tunisians.
Meanwhile, even as the cable pointed out that Tunisians fear publicly criticising the Ben Ali family and government officials, it was clear to the author that the chance for democratically driven change was slim, as Ben Ali did not seem to be in a rush to retire. Furthermore, it was apparent that it would be “optimistic to believe that his glacially slow political reform ‘plan’ may include increased political liberties and eventually his own departure.”
The memo acknowledged the crackdown on freedoms of speech and press, saying that they are counter to the US agenda, but no strategy is outline to pressure or incentivise the Tunisian government to change.
The final memo details how Tunisians seem to see the Ben Ali family – and all connections to it – as vital to success. The complex web of children, in-laws and other peripheral relatives of the Ben Ali clan – or the “Family”.
The key players are named, as are their fiefdoms – which seems to flesh out a view given in an earlier memo – that the Family owns Tunisia.
However, the final memo ends on a curiously light note. It says that most Tunisians seem to be “sympathetic” to the expanding reach of the Family. In fact, the memo ends with a joke:
A popular joke tells of President Ben Ali being stopped by a traffic cop when out for a drive by himself. Ben Ali explains he is the President, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, but the cop says “Never heard of you,” and takes Ben Ali to the police station. The station chief looks at Ben Alis identification card and says, “Its okay. Hes related to the Trabelsis.” [A reference to the infamously corrupt family of Ben Ali’s wife, Leila] The joke outlines what most Tunisians feel today: compared to the strength and depth of the Trabelsi familys grip on Tunisia, Ben Ali is inconsequential.
Hudson finished off the memo with adding that this could be “wishful thinking” and that Ben Ali’s growing influence would have to be “addressed”.
Given that a 2009 memo was titled “Troubled Tunisia: What should we do?” it doesn’t seem like the US state department came up with a way to address the issues raised by the earlier memos.