Wikileaks: Tunisia's next president?

In Tunisia, 30-year-old Mohamed Sakhr El-Matri is increasingly viewed as a possible successor to his dictatorial father-in-law, President Ben Ali. The American ambassador in Tunis met him last year and wrote a report marked "secret" which has now been published by Wikileaks:

El-Matri presented himself as self-confident, but low-key. This was in marked contrast to his reputation as a flamboyant and aggressive business mogul. His reputation derives in part from the fact that he drives an Austin Martin and a Hummer among other cars, and rumours that he owns a pet tiger

With the ambassador, he was equally comfortable talking about political issues and personal issues. He indicated his awareness of his relative youth ... but did not seem uncomfortable with that reality. He also discussed his wife Nesrine's commitment to usingonly organic products from the food they eat to the paint and varnish in their new mansion.

With Tunisians, Sakhr El-Matri gets political credibility from his own family as well as by being the president's son-in-law. His grandfather, Dr Mahmoud El-Matri, was a famous activist in the nationalist movement of the 1930s. His father was a military officer and was sentenced to life imprisonment for an attempted coup against Bourguiba in 1962. He was later pardoned by Bourguiba ... The El-Matri family is also prominent in business.

El-Matri asked to work with the embassy on the conservation of the cliff on which both the ambassador's residence and his new mansion sit side-by-side. The ambassador offered to share with him the embassy's assessment of the cliff's stability.

Speculation about El-Matri as Ben Ali's favoured successor arises mainly from his election in 2008 to the central committee of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party – a remarkable feat considering he was still only in his twenties at the time. 

The ambassador's note adds that he was also given a prominent position on the podium for Ben Ali's annual November 7 speech celebrating his takeover (in a bloodless coup) from President Bourguiba. "Only one other of Ben Ali's four sons-in-law was also on the stage, Marouane Mabrouk."

Although the note says El-Matri has not "played up his political role" since joining the central committee, "he has continued to focus on economic issues and expand his business empire, including pursuing opening a religious-themed TV station and a new Islamic bank both named Zeitouna, building on his Quranic radio station".

In the 2009 meeting, the ambassador found El-Matri "willing to comment frankly on US-Tunisian relations and other issues". He seems to have grumbled a bit about the "fixed views" of elderly Tunisian government officials and he "acknowledged that Tunisia needs to improve its performance on human rights".

Regarding his business activities, the report says that in addition to his Goulette Shipping Cruise line, El-Matri controls under the Princess El-Materi holding company the concessions for Audi, Volkswagen, Porsche, Renault cars and trucks; a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, Societe Adwia; and two real estate companies, Les Hirondelles and Le Marchand de l'Immobilier. A comment at the end says:

Sakhr El-Matri comes across as someone who is in no rush but who is building his future both within the RCD and directly with the people through his Islamic radio and future bank. 

Unfortunately, along with his business dealings come a raft of rumours about corruption that make people cynical about his political intentions. At the very least, his business ventures thus far would not have been possible were it not for his close ties to President Ben Ali ...

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 Dec 2010.