Wikileaks: Tunisia, the 'friend' that isn't

"By many measures, Tunisia should be a close US ally. But it is not." That was the blunt message from the American ambassador in Tunis, in a document released by Wikileaks.

It was written by the departing ambassador, Robert Godec, in July last year, apparently as a briefing for his successor, the marathon-running Gordon Gray – and shortly before President Ben Ali wasre-elected with an implausible 89.62% majority.

Describing Ben Ali's regime as "sclerotic", Godec continued:

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 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 behaviour. 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.

The ambassador also complained that the Tunisian government makes it difficult for American diplomats "to maintain contact with a wide swath of Tunisian society". Government-controlled newspapers "often attack Tunisian civil society activists who participate in Embassy activities, portraying them as traitors":

Plain-clothes police sometimes lurk outside events hosted by [embassy officials], intimidating participants. In one example of the [government's] tactics, we awarded a local grant through MEPI to a Tunisian woman, but her boss at the Commerce Ministry told her not to pursue it. She persisted for a time, but backed out when she began receiving anonymous death threats.

The note continues:

[Government] leaders have made no secret of their disapproval of the ambassador's and other [embassy officials'] contacts with opposition party leaders – in particular the Progressive Democratic Party's Nejib Chebbi, the object of President Ben Ali's intense personal animus – as well as civil society activists who criticize the regime. They were intensely critical, as well, of the previous Administration's use of public statements (such as on World Press Freedom Day 2008), which they believed unfairly targeted Tunisia.

Perhaps surprisingly, considering his views on the regime, Godec suggests that public criticism may not be the way forward. 

For several years, the United States has been out in front – publicly and privately – criticising the [government of Tunisia] for the absence of democracy and the lack of respect for human rights. 

There is a place for such criticism, and we do not advocate abandoning it. We do recommend a more pragmatic approach, however, whereby we would speak to the Tunisians very clearly and at a very high level about our concerns regarding Tunisia's democracy and human rights practices, but dial back the public criticism. The key element is more and frequent high-level private candor.

He goes on to suggest maintaining dialogue "on a range of issues of mutual interest, backed up by increased assistance" and more engagement "directly with the Tunisian people, especially youth" – adding, "The Embassy is already using Facebook as a communication tool."

Considering the nature of the problem, these proposals sound rather feeble. But it's difficult ot know whaty anyone, inside or outside the country, might do about it at the moment. As Godec puts it: "Major change in Tunisia will have to wait for Ben Ali's departure."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 Dec 2010.