WikiLeaks: U.S. Embassy Cables Deeply Unflattering about Tunisia
Deeply unflattering reports from the US embassy in Tunis, released by WikiLeaks, make no bones about the state of the small Maghreb country, widely considered one of the most repressive in a repressive region.
Document 1: Tunisia – a US foreign policy conundrum. The US ambassador to Tunisia explains the North African country’s ambivalent position in US foreign policy. Although a potential friend to America in the region, the country is troubled by nepotism, corruption, and the ‘sclerotic’ regime of ageing president Ben Ali.
Document 2: The ‘OTT’ lifestyle of Tunisian president’s son-in-law, including pet tiger.
Document 3: Corruption in Tunisia: What’s Yours is Mine.
Read related article “Tunisia blocks site reporting ‘hatred’ of first lady” in the Guardian here.
Friday, 17 July 2009, 16:19
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 05 TUNIS 000492
DEPT FOR NEA AA/S FELTMAN, DAS HUDSON, AMBASSADOR-DESIGNATE
GRAY, AND NEA/MAG FROM AMBASSADOR
EO 12958 DECL: 07/13/2029
TAGS PREL, PGOV, ECON, KPAO, MASS, PHUM, TS
SUBJECT: TROUBLED TUNISIA: WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
Classified By: Ambassador Robert F. Godec for E.O. 12958 reasons 1.4 (b ) and (d).
1. (S/NF) 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.
2. (S/NF) In the past three years, US Mission Tunis has responded by offering greater cooperation where the Tunisians say they want it, but not shied from making plain the need for change. We have had some successes, notably in the commercial and military assistance areas. But we have also had failures. We have been blocked, in part, by a Foreign Ministry that seeks to control all our contacts in the government and many other organizations. Too often, the GOT prefers the illusion of engagement to the hard work of real cooperation. Major change in Tunisia will have to wait for Ben Ali’s departure, but President Obama and his policies create opportunities now. What should we do to take advantage of them? We recommend:
— keep a strong focus on democratic reform and respect for human rights, but shift the way we promote these goals; — seek to engage the GOT in a dialogue on issues of mutual interest, including trade and investment, Middle East peace, and greater Maghreb integration; — offer Tunisians (with an emphasis on youth) more English-language training, educational exchanges, and cultural programs; — move our military assistance away from FMF, but look for new ways to build security and intelligence cooperation; and, — increase high-level contacts but stress that deeper US cooperation depends on real Tunisian engagement. End Summary.
The Backdrop: Historic Relations and Shared Values
3. (SBU) The United States and Tunisia have 200 years of close ties and common interests, including advancing regional peace, combating terrorism, and building prosperity. Since independence, Tunisia deserves credit for its economic and social progress. Without the natural resources of its neighbors, Tunisia focused on people and diversified its economy. In a success all too rare, the GOT is effective in delivering services (education, health care, infrastructure and security) to its people. The GOT has sought to build a &knowledge economy8 to attract FDI that will create high value-added jobs. As a result, the country has enjoyed five percent real GDP growth for the past decade. On women’s rights, Tunisia is a model. And, Tunisia has a long history of religious tolerance, as demonstrated by its treatment of its Jewish community. While significant challenges remain (above all the country’s 14 percent unemployment rate) on balance Tunisia has done better than most in the region.
4. (SBU) On foreign policy, Tunisia has long played a moderate role (although recently its goal has been to &get along with everyone8). The GOT rejects the Arab League boycott of Israeli goods. Although it broke ties with Israel in 2000, the GOT has from time to time taken part in quiet discussions with Israeli officials. The GOT also supports Mahmoud Abbas’ leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Tunisia participated in the Annapolis conference and has supported our efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The GOT is like-minded on Iran, is an ally in the fight against terrorism, and has maintained an Embassy in Iraq at the Charge level. Moreover, Tunisia recently signed a debt forgiveness agreement with the GOI on Paris Club terms; it is the first Arab country to do so.
5. (SBU) Finally, although Tunisians have been deeply angry over the war in Iraq and perceived US bias towards Israel, most still admire the &the American dream.8 Despite the anger at US foreign policy, we see a growing desire for English-language instruction, a wish for more educational and
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scientific exchanges, and a belief in the American culture of innovation. Tunisians see these as important for their future.
The Problem: A Sclerotic Regime and Growing Corruption
6. (C) 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 GOT can point to some political progress in the last decade, including an end to prior review of books and ICRC access to many prisons. But for every step forward there has been another back, for example the recent takeover of important private media outlets by individuals close to President Ben Ali.
7. (C) 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 behavior. 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.
US-Tunisian Relations: If Only We Would Say This Is Paradise
8. (S/NF) US-Tunisian relations reflect the realities of the Ben Ali regime. On the positive side, we have accomplished several goals in recent years, including:
— increasing substantially US assistance to the military to combat terrorism; — improving (albeit still with challenges) some important counterterrorism programs; — strengthening commercial ties, including holding a TIFA Council meeting, hosting several trade and economic delegations and growing business activity; — building ties to young people and the cultural community through expanded English-language programs, a new film festival, and new media outreach efforts; and — encouraging congressional interest in Tunisia.
9. (C) But we have also had too many failures. The GOT frequently declines to engage, and there have been too many lost opportunities. The GOT has:
— declined to engage on the Millennium Challenge Account; — declined USAID regional programs to assist young people; — reduced the number of Fulbright scholarship students; and, — declined to engage in Open Skies negotiations.
Most troubling has been the GOT’s unilateral and clumsy effort to impose new and retroactive taxes on the American Cooperative School of Tunis. There is little doubt that this action was at the behest of powerful friends (probably including Leila Trabelsi) of the International School of Carthage. It raises important questions about Tunisian governance and our friendship. If, in the end, the GOT’s actions force the school to close we will need to downsize the Mission, limit our programs, and dial down our relations.
10. (C) At the same time, the GOT has also increasingly tightened controls that make it exceptionally difficult for the US Mission to conduct business. The controls, put in place by Foreign Minister Abdallah, require the Mission to obtain written MFA permission for contact with all official and semi-official Tunisian organizations. Mid-level GOT officials are no longer allowed to communicate with embassy personnel without express authorization and MFA-cleared instructions. All meeting requests and demarches must be conveyed by diplomatic note. Most go unanswered. All Embassies in Tunis are affected by these controls, but they are no less frustrating for that.
11. (C) Beyond the stifling bureaucratic controls, the GOT makes it difficult for the Mission to maintain contact with a
TUNIS 00000492 003 OF 005
wide swath of Tunisian society. GOT-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 EmbOffs, intimidating participants. XXXXXXXXXXXX
12. (C) Some of the GOT’s actions may be related to its intense dislike of the former Administration’s &freedom agenda.8 The GOT considered this policy dangerous and believed it opened the door for Islamic extremists to seize power. GOT leaders have made no secret of their disapproval of the Ambassador’s and other EmbOffs’ contacts with opposition XXXXXXXXXXXX leaders 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.
So, What Should We Do?
13. (C) Notwithstanding the frustrations of doing business here, we cannot write off Tunisia. We have too much at stake. We have an interest in preventing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups from establishing a foothold here. We have an interest in keeping the Tunisian military professional and neutral. We also have an interest in fostering greater political openness and respect for human rights. It is in our interest, too, to build prosperity and Tunisia’s middle class, the underpinning for the country’s long-term stability. Moreover, we need to increase mutual understanding to help repair the image of the United States and secure greater cooperation on our many regional challenges. The United States needs help in this region to promote our values and policies. Tunisia is one place where, in time, we might find it.
The Extended Hand
14. (C) Since President Obama’s inauguration, Tunisians have been more receptive to the United States. Senior GOT officials have warmly welcomed President Obama’s statements and speeches. His address in Cairo drew particular praise, with the Foreign Minister calling it &courageous.8 Meanwhile, some civil society contacts who had been boycotting Embassy functions in opposition to the war in Iraq have started coming around again. Generally, the metaphor of the &extended hand8 in President Obama’s inaugural address has resonated powerfully with Tunisians. Concretely, the Tunisians have welcomed many of the Obama Administration’s actions, including the decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and the plans for troop withdrawals from Iraq. Above all, Tunisians have been pleased by the President’s tone, statements and actions (so far) on Middle East peace.
How To Advance Democracy and Human Rights
15. (S) The Obama Administration creates an important opportunity, then, to explore whether and how to pursue a more productive bilateral relationship. GOT officials say the United States tends to focus on issues where we do not see eye-to-eye. They bristle at our calls for greater democratic reform and respect for human rights, and protest they are making progress. For years, the Embassy’s top goal has been to promote progress in these areas. We need to keep the focus, especially with 2009 an election year in Tunisia. Ben Ali is certain to be reelected by a wide margin in a process that will be neither free nor fair. In this context, we should continue to underscore the importance of these issues, and to maintain contacts with the few opposition parties and civil society groups critical of the regime.
16. (C) We should consider how this policy objective is publicly manifested, however. For several years, the United States has been out in front — publicly and privately — criticizing the GOT for the absence of democracy and the lack of respect for human rights. There is a place for such
TUNIS 00000492 004 OF 005
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. We recommend being explicit with GOT leaders that we are changing our approach, while also making clear that we will continue to engage privately with opposition parties and civil society.
17. (C) In addition, we should increase our efforts to persuade our European partners, and other like-minded countries, to step up their efforts to persuade the GOT to accelerate political reform. While some in the EU (e.g., Germany, the UK) agree with us, key countries such as France and Italy have shied from putting pressure on the GOT. We should work to get them to do so, and to condition further assistance and advanced EU associate status on it.
Advancing Other US Interests
18. (C) Whether we succeed on democracy and human rights, the United States has an interest in building relations with a wide spectrum of Tunisians, particularly the young. To do so, and to build good will with the GOT, we should offer the government a dialogue on a range of issues of mutual interest, backed up by increased assistance. Of greatest interest to the GOT would be increased engagement on economic issues, i.e., on increasing bilateral trade and investment, as well as the provision of technical assistance, especially involving technology transfer. The Tunisians would welcome a revival of the US-North African Economic Partnership, as well as other efforts that would promote North African economic integration.
19. (C) In addition, we should offer serious engagement in high-priority areas for Tunisians that will also benefit the United States, including:
— more, and more comprehensive, English-language programs; — Ph.D. scholarships for Tunisian students to study in the United States, such as those that USAID used to make available in the 1970’s and 1980’s; — more support for University linkages; — more science and technology exchanges — to give substance to a bilateral S&T agreement that, with no money behind it, has had little impact; and — more cultural programming.
20. (C) In addition to talking to the GOT, we need to engage directly with the Tunisian people, especially youth. The Embassy is already using Facebook as a communication tool. In addition, we have the Ambassador’s blog, a relatively new undertaking that is attracting attention. Over the past couple of years, the Embassy has substantially increased its outreach to Tunisian youth through concerts, film festivals, and other events. Our information resource center and America’s Corners are popular ways for Tunisians to access unfiltered news and information. We should continue and increase such programs.
Advancing Broader Foreign Policy Objectives And Security Cooperation
21. (C) We should also seek new ways to engage Tunisia in pursuit of our broader foreign policy agenda. We believe that the GOT would welcome this kind of engagement, and that it would pay dividends, not only in our bilateral relationship but also on transnational issues. For example, we continue to count on GOT support for our efforts to promote Israel-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace. Although Tunisia has limited influence within the Arab League, it remains in the moderate camp, as demonstrated most recently by its refusal to participate in the extraordinary Doha Summit on the situation in Gaza. At appropriate moments, we would recommend doing more to brief the GOT on our efforts in the peace process and to draw them into providing additional support. Special Envoy Mitchell’s stop here in April was well received and we should look for ways to continue such consultations.
22. (S/NF) There are opportunities in the area of security cooperation, too. For starters, we know that Tunisia could be doing a better job in sharing intelligence with us about
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the threat of terrorism in North Africa. This was all too clear when, yet again, the GOT failed recently to share information with us in a timely fashion on a reported plot against US military personnel. GRPO has been taking steps to increase cooperation through liaison channels; while there has been progress, more is possible.
23. (C) On military cooperation, the time has come to shift our military assistance away from FMF to more targeted programs that meet specific needs. There is increasing evidence the Tunisian military does not need FMF to the degree it claims, and in any event it has bought us too little in the way of cooperation. Rather, we should focus on working with the Tunisians to identify a small number of areas were cooperation makes sense. The recent use of the Section 1206 and PKO programs to provide the Tunisian military with ground surveillance radar and unmanned surveillance aircraft is a good example.
Our Message: Deeper Cooperation Depends On Real Engagement
24. (S) Tunisia is not an ally today, but we still share important history and values. It is fair to consider Tunisia a friend, albeit cautious, closed and distant. Most importantly, in a region in turmoil, Tunisia has better prospects than most even though it is troubled. In the end, serious change here will have to await Ben Ali’s departure. But President Obama’s new tone and policies may create a window of opportunity. We should use it to make overtures to the GOT in areas where they seek our involvement or assistance. And, we should seek to engage all Tunisians (especially the young) in ways that will improve the future for both our countries.
25. (S) To succeed, however, we need resources and commitment from Washington. New and expanded programs will require money and staff to implement them, particularly in public affairs. Senior US Government officials must also be prepared to visit more often than in recent years to engage the Tunisians. Meetings outside Tunisia are a good tool, too. The Secretary’s recent meeting with North African Foreign Ministers on the margins of the Gaza Reconstruction Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh provides one model for engagement and offers the added benefit of allowing us to also promote greater Maghreb integration.
26. (S) Finally, we recommend US officials be clear in all meetings with Tunisians: more US cooperation depends on real Tunisian engagement. For too long Tunisia has skated by. A small country, in a tough region, the GOT relies on vague promises of friendship and empty slogans. More can and should be expected of Tunisia. The GOT frequently says it is a US ally and calls for greater US engagement. We should respond clearly: yes, but only if we get genuine help from Tunisia on the challenges that matter to us all. The Tunisian government loves the illusion of engagement. The US government should press for the hard work of real cooperation.
Monday, 27 July 2009, 16:09
S E C R E T TUNIS 000516
EO 12958 DECL: 02/28/2017
TAGS PREL, PTER, PGOV, PINR, ENRG, EAID, TS
SUBJECT: TUNISIA: DINNER WITH SAKHER EL MATERI
REF: TUNIS 338
Classified By: Ambassador Robert F. Godec for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)
1. (S) The Ambassador and his wife had dinner with Mohammad Sakher El Materi and his wife, Nesrine Ben Ali El Materi, at their Hammamet home July 17. During the lavish dinner Al Materi raised the question of the American Cooperative School of Tunis and said he would seek to “fix the problem prior to the Ambassador’s departure” as a gesture to a “friend.” He praised President Obama’s policies and advocated a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. He also expressed interest in opening a McDonald’s franchise and complained about the government’s delay in passing a franchise law. He expressed pride in his Islamic Zaitouna radio and in the interviews with opposition party leaders published in his newly purchased newspaper publishing group. During the evening, El Materi was alternately difficult and kind. He seemed, on occasion, to be seeking approval. He was living, however, in the midst of great wealth and excess, illustrating one reason resentment of President Ben Ali’s in-laws is increasing. End Summary.
The ACST Situation
2. (S) Presidential son-in-law and wealthy businessman Mohamed Sakher El Materi, and his wife, Nesrine Ben Ali El Materi hosted the Ambassador and his wife for dinner at their Hammamet beach residence July 17. El Materi raised the American Cooperative School of Tunis (ACST), asking what was happening. The Ambassador explained the situation and emphasized that there is anger and concern in Washington and the English-speaking American/international community in Tunis. He said if the school is closed, there would be serious consequences in our relations. El Materi said he could help and would seek to resolve the situation immediately, i.e., prior to the Ambassador’s departure. He wished, he said, to do so for a “friend.” He noted that he had helped the UK Ambassador secure several appointments (including a lunch with the Prime Minister) for UK Prince Andrew during his recent visit. Before his intervention, El Materi said, the Prince had only one appointment with a single Minister.
Freedom of Expression
3. (S) Ambassador raised the need for more freedom of expression and association in Tunisia. El Materi agreed. He complained that, as the new owner of Dar Assaba, the largest private newspaper group in the country, he has been getting calls from the Minister of Communications complaining about articles he has been running (Comment: This is doubtful). He laughed and suggested that sometimes he wants to “give Dar Assaba back.” El Materi noted the interviews his newspapers have been running with opposition leaders (he mentioned FDTL Secretary General Mustapha Ben Jaafar). He was clearly proud of the interviews.
4. (S) El Materi said it was important to help others, noting that was one reason he had adopted a son. The Ambassador mentioned the Embassy’s humanitarian assistance projects, noting they could not get media coverage. El Materi said forcefully they should be covered, that it was important the Embassy seek such coverage. He said it would counteract some of the negative US image. The Ambassador asked if El Materi would send reporters to do stories on the US assistance projects. El Materi said yes, absolutely.
5. (S) El Materi complained at length about Tunisian bureaucracy, saying it is difficult to get things done. He said communication inside the bureaucracy is terrible. He said people often “bring wrong information” to the President implying he had to get involved sometimes to get things corrected.
On Exterior Politics and Economics
6. (S) El Materi praised President Barack Obama’s new policies. He said the invasion of Iraq was a very serious US mistake that had strengthened Iran and bred hatred of the United States in the Arab world. He pressed for a two state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and indicated Tunisia needs to accelerate convertibility of the dinar. In general, however, El Materi’s knowledge of and interest in international political and economic issues seemed limited.
7. (S) The Ambassador raised economic liberalization, noting the importance of opening up to franchising. El Materi agreed, noting that he would be pleased to assist McDonald’s to enter Tunisia, suggesting they begin at the new cruise port in La Goulette. He complained about the unhealthy food served by McDonald’s, however, adding it is making Americans fat. He also complained about the GOT’s delay in passing a franchising law.
8. (S) The Ambassador noted he has been asking Tunisians what ideas they have for the new US President and Administration. El Materi commented that Nesrine would like more done on the environment. The Ambassador responded by explaining some of the Administration’s policies on the environment. El Materi said Nesrine is focused on organic products and wants everything (even the paint and varnish) in their new house in Sidi Bou Said (next to the Ambassador’s residence) to be organic.
9. (S) El Materi said he had begun to practice Islam seriously at 17. He repeatedly said he was practicing, and had a strong faith. (NB. He went off to pray at the sunset call to prayer.) He suggested that if you have faith and pray to God, he will help. He emphasized that his religion is personal, and he does not believe it is appropriate to impose his views on others. (Comment. During the evening, El Materi seemed at his most passionate when describing the Koran, his belief in one God, and the importance of Mohamed as the final prophet of God.)
10. (S) El Materi said he was proud of Zeitouna radio, the first and only Tunisian Koranic radio station, and discussed how Zeitouna bank would be opening. He hopes to create a regional version of Zeitouna radio to spread the Malakite school of Islam. He expressed the view that Islamists and extremists pose a great threat to Islam and modernity. He said he follows Islam, but modern Islam.
El-Materi Unplugged: Home/Personal Life
11. (S) El-Materi’s house is spacious, and directly above and along the Hammamet public beach. The compound is large and well guarded by government security. It is close to the center of Hammamet, with a view of the fort and the southern part of the town. The house was recently renovated and includes an infinity pool and a terrace of perhaps 50 meters. While the house is done in a modern style (and largely white), there are ancient artifacts everywhere: Roman columns, frescoes and even a lion’s head from which water pours into the pool. El Materi insisted the pieces are real. He hopes to move into his new (and palatial) house in Sidi Bou Said in eight to ten months.
12. (S) The dinner included perhaps a dozen dishes, including fish, steak, turkey, octopus, fish couscous and much more. The quantity was sufficient for a very large number of guests. Before dinner a wide array of small dishes were served, along with three different juices (including Kiwi juice, not normally available here). After dinner, he served ice cream and frozen yoghurt he brought in by plane from Saint Tropez, along with blueberries and raspberries and fresh fruit and chocolate cake. (NB. El Materi and Nesrine had just returned from Saint Tropez on their private jet after two weeks vacation. El Materi was concerned about his American pilot finding a community here. The Ambassador said he would be pleased to invite the pilot to appropriate American community events.)
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.)
14. (S) They have three children, two girls and a boy. Leila is four and another daughter that is about 10 months. Their boy is adopted and is two years old. The youngest daughter is a Canadian citizen, by virtue of birth in Canada. The family’s favorite vacation destination spot is the Maldives Islands.
15. (S) El Materi said he has begun an exercise and diet regime. He has, he said, recently lost weight (it was visibly true). El Materi said he eats in a “balanced” way. He had just spent an hour on a bike, he claimed. Nesrine said she gets no exercise.
16. (S) Both El Materi and Nesrine speak English, although their vocabulary and grammar are limited. They are clearly eager to strengthen their English. Nesrine said she loves Disney World, but had put off a trip this year because of H1N1 flu. Nesrine has, for sometime, had Tamiflu nearby (even taking it on trips). Originally it was out of fear of bird flu. She packs it for El Materi too when he travels. Nesrine said she has visited several US cities. El Materi had only been to Illinois recently in connection with the purchase of a plane.
17. (S) Throughout the evening, El Materi often struck the Ambassador as demanding, vain and difficult. He is clearly aware of his wealth and power, and his actions reflected little finesse. He repeatedly pointed out the lovely view from his home and frequently corrected his staff, issued orders and barked reprimands. Despite this, El Materi was aware of his affect on the people around him and he showed periodic kindness. He was unusually solicitous and helpful to the Ambassador’s wife, who is disabled. Occasionally, he seemed to be seeking approval. One western Ambassador in Tunis, who knows El Materi, has commented that he has western-style political skills in his willingness to engage with ordinary citizens. It is an uncommon trait here.
18. (S) El Materi, in recent months, has been ever more visible in the local diplomatic community. He has clearly decided (or been told) to serve as a point of contact between the regime and key ambassadors. Nesrine, at age 23, appeared friendly and interested, but nave and clueless. She reflected the very sheltered, privileged and wealthy life she has led. As for the dinner itself, it was similar to what one might experience in a Gulf country, and out of the ordinary for Tunisia.
19. (S) Most striking of all, however, was the opulence with which El Materi and Nesrine live. Their home in Hammamet was impressive, with the tiger adding to the impression of “over the top.” Even more extravagant is their home still under construction in Sidi Bou Said. That residence, from its outward appearance, will be closer to a palace. It dominates the Sidi Bou Said skyline from some vantage points and has been the occasion of many private, critical comments. The opulence with which El Materi and Nesrine live and their behavior make clear why they and other members of Ben Ali’s family are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians. The excesses of the Ben Ali family are growing.
Please visit Embassy Tunis’ Classified Website at: http://www.state.sgov.gov/p/nea/tunis/index.c fm Godec
Reference ID: 08TUNIS679
Created: 2008-06-23 13:01
Origin: Embassy Tunis
DE RUEHTU #0679/01 1751355
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
P 231355Z JUN 08
FM AMEMBASSY TUNIS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5219
INFO RUCNMGH/MAGHREB COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
SS E C R E T TUNIS 000679
STATE FOR NEA/MAG (HARRIS)
STATE PASS USTR (BURKHEAD)
USDOC FOR ITA/MAC/ONE (NATHAN MASON), ADVOCACY CTR
(REITZE), AND CLDP (TEJTEL AND MCMANUS)
CASABLANCA FOR FCS (ORTIZ)
CAIRO FOR FINANCIAL ATTACHE (SEVERENS)
LONDON AND PARIS FOR NEA WATCHER
E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/23/2018
TAGS: ECON KCOR PGOV EINV EFIN SOCI TS
SUBJECT: CORRUPTION IN TUNISIA: WHAT’S YOURS IS MINE
REF: A. TUNIS 615
¶B. TUNIS 568
¶C. TUNIS 365
¶D. TUNIS 169
¶E. TUNIS 113
¶F. 07 TUNIS 1489
¶G. 07 TUNIS 1443
¶H. 07 TUNIS 1433
¶I. 06 TUNIS 2848
¶J. 06 TUNIS 1673
¶K. 06 TUNIS 1672
¶L. 06 TUNIS 1630
¶M. 06 TUNIS 1622
¶N. 01 TUNIS 2971
Classified By: Ambassador Robert F. Godec for Reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).
¶1. (S) According to Transparency International’s annual
survey and Embassy contacts’ observations, corruption in
Tunisia is getting worse. Whether it’s cash, services, land,
property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family
is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants.
Beyond the stories of the First Family’s shady dealings,
Tunisians report encountering low-level corruption as well in
interactions with the police, customs, and a variety of
government ministries. The economic impact is clear, with
Tunisian investors — fearing the long-arm of “the Family” —
forgoing new investments, keeping domestic investment rates
low and unemployment high (Refs G, H). These persistent
rumors of corruption, coupled with rising inflation and
continued unemployment, have helped to fuel frustration with
the GOT and have contributed to recent protests in
southwestern Tunisia (Ref A). With those at the top believed
to be the worst offenders, and likely to remain in power,
there are no checks in the system. End Summary.
The Sky’s the Limit
¶2. (C) According to Transparency International’s 2007 index,
the perception is that corruption in Tunisia is getting
worse. Tunisia’s ranking on the index dropped from 43 in
2005 to 61 in 2007 (out of 179 countries) with a score of 4.2
(with 1 the most corrupt and 10 the least corrupt). Although
corruption is hard to verify and even more difficult to
quantify, our contacts all agree that the situation is headed
in the wrong direction. When asked whether he thought
corruption was better, worse, or the same, XXXXXXXXXXXX
exclaimed in exasperation, “Of course it’s getting worse!”
He stated that corruption could not but increase as the culprits
looked for more and more opportunities. Joking about Tunisia’s
rising inflation, he said that even the cost of bribes was up. “A
traffic stop used to cost you 20 dinars and now it’s up to 40
All in the Family
¶3. (S) President Ben Ali’s extended family is often cited as
the nexus of Tunisian corruption. Often referred to as a
quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of “the Family” is enough to
indicate which family you mean. Seemingly half of the
Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection
through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to
have made the most of their lineage. Ben Ali’s wife, Leila
Ben Ali, and her extended family — the Trabelsis — provoke
the greatest ire from Tunisians. Along with the numerous
allegations of Trabelsi corruption are often barbs about
their lack of education, low social status, and conspicuous
consumption. While some of the complaints about the Trabelsi
clan seem to emanate from a disdain for their nouveau riche
inclinations, Tunisians also argue that the Trabelsis strong
arm tactics and flagrant abuse of the system make them easy
to hate. Leila’s brother Belhassen Trabelsi is the most
notorious family member and is rumored to have been involved
in a wide-range of corrupt schemes from the recent Banque de
Tunisie board shakeup (Ref B) to property expropriation and
extortion of bribes. Leaving the question of their
progenitor aside, Belhassen Trabelsi’s holdings are extensive
and include an airline, several hotels, one of Tunisia’s two
private radio stations, car assembly plants, Ford
distribution, a real estate development company, and the list
goes on. (See Ref K for a more extensive list of his
holdings.) Yet, Belhassen is only one of Leila’s ten known
siblings, each with their own children. Among this large
extended family, Leila’s brother Moncef and nephew Imed are
also particularly important economic actors.
¶4. (S/NF) The President is often given a pass, with many
Tunisians arguing that he is being used by the Trabelsi clan
and is unaware of their shady dealings. XXXXXXXXXXXX
a strong supporter of the government and member of
XXXXXXXXXXXX, told the Ambassador that the problem is
not Ben Ali, but “the Family” going too far and breaking the
rules. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe Ben Ali is not
aware, at least generally, of the growing corruption problem.
This might also reflect the seeming geographical divisions
between the Ben Ali and Trabelsi fiefdoms, with the Ben Ali
clan reportedly focused on the central coastal regional and
the Trabelsi clan operating out of the greater Tunis area and
therefore, generating the bulk of the gossip. The Ben Ali
side of the Family and his children and in-laws from his
first marriage are also implicated in a number of stories.
Ben Ali has seven siblings, of which his late brother Moncef
was a known drug trafficker, sentenced in absentia to 10
years prison in the French courts. Ben Ali has three
children with his first wife Naima Kefi: Ghaouna, Dorsaf and
Cyrine. They are married respectively to Slim Zarrouk, Slim
Chiboub, and Marouane Mabrouk — all significant economic
This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land
¶5. (S/NF) With real estate development booming and land
prices on the rise, owning property or land in the right
location can either be a windfall or a one-way ticket to
expropriation. In summer 2007, Leila Ben Ali received a
desirable tract of land in Carthage for free from the GOT in
order to build the for-profit Carthage International School
(Ref F). In addition to the land, the school received a 1.8
million dinar (US $1.5 million) gift from the GOT, and within
a matter of weeks the GOT had built new roads and stoplights
to facilitate school access. It has been reported that Ms.
Ben Ali has sold the Carthage International School to Belgian
investors, but the Belgian Embassy has as yet been unable to
confirm or discount the rumor. XXXXXXXXXXXX asserted
that the school was indeed sold for a huge, but undisclosed sum.
He noted any such sale would be pure profit since Ms. Ben Ali’s
received land, infrastructure, and a hefty bonus at no cost.
¶6. (S/NF) Construction on an enormous and garish mansion has
been underway next to the Ambassador’s residence for the past
year. Multiple sources have told us that the home is that of
Sakhr Materi, President Ben Ali’s son-in-law and owner of
Zitouna Radio. This prime real estate was reportedly
expropriated from its owner by the GOT for use by the water
authority, then later granted to Materi for private use. A
cafe owner recounted a similar tale to an Embassy employee,
reporting that Belhassen Trabelsi forced him to trade in a
cafe he previously owned in a prime location for his current
cafe. The cafe owner stated Trabelsi told him he could do
whatever he wanted there; if 50 dinar bribes to the police
were not effective, Trabelsi said the owner had only to call
him and he would “take care of it.”
¶6. (S/NF) In 2006, Imed and Moaz Trabelsi, Ben Ali’s nephews,
are reported to have stolen the yacht of a well-connected
French businessman, Bruno Roger, Chairman of Lazard Paris.
The theft, widely reported in the French press, came to light
when the yacht, freshly painted to cover distinguishing
characteristics, appeared in the Sidi Bou Said harbor.
Roger’s prominence in the French establishment created a
potential irritant in bilateral relations and according to
reports, the yacht was swiftly returned. The stolen yacht
affair resurfaced in early 2008 due to an Interpol warrant
for the two Trabelsis. In May, the brothers were brought
before Tunisian courts, in a likely effort to satisfy
international justice. The outcome of their case has not
Show Me Your Money
¶7. (S) Tunisia’s financial sector remains plagued by serious
allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement.
Tunisian business people joke that the most important
relationship you can have is with your banker, reflecting the
importance of personal connections rather than a solid
business plan in securing financing. The legacy of
relationship-based banking is a sector-wide rate of
non-performing loans that is 19 percent, which remains high
but is lower than a high of 25 percent in 2001 (Ref I).
Embassy contacts are quick to point out that many of these
loans are held by wealthy Tunisian business people who use
their close ties to the regime to avoid repayment (Ref E).
Lax oversight makes the banking sector an excellent target of
opportunity, with multiple stories of “First Family” schemes.
The recent reshuffle at Banque de Tunisie (Ref B), with the
Foreign Minister’s wife assuming the presidency and Belhassen
Trabelsi named to the board, is the latest example.
According to a representative from Credit Agricole, Marouane
Mabrouk, another of Ben Ali’s sons-in-law, purchased a 17
percent share of the former Banque du Sud (now Attijari Bank)
shares immediately prior to the bank’s privatization. This
17 percent share was critical to acquiring controlling
interest in the bank since the privatization represented only
a 35 percent share in the bank. The Credit Agricole rep
stated that Mabrouk shopped his shares to foreign banks with
a significant premium, with the tender winner,
Spanish-Moroccan Santander-Attijariwafa ultimately paying an
off the books premium to Mabrouk. XXXXXXXXXXXX
recounted that when he was still at his bank he used to receive
phone calls from panicked clients who stated that Belhassen Trabelsi
had asked them for money. He did not indicate whether he advised
them to pay.
The Trickle Down Effect
¶8. (S) While the stories of high-level, Family corruption are
among the most flagrant and oft-repeated, Tunisians report
encountering low-level corruption more frequently in their
daily lives. Speeding tickets can be ignored, passports can
be expedited, and customs can be bypassed — all for the
right price. Donations to the GOT’s 26-26 Fund for
development or to the Bessma Society for the Handicapped —
Leila Ben Ali’s favored charity — are also believed to
grease the wheels. Hayet Louani (protect), a well-connected
member of Parliament, faced increased pressure from the GOT
after refusing several “requests” to donate money to
Trabelsi’s soccer team. XXXXXXXXXXXX reported
that customs inspectors demanded 10,000 dinars to
get his goods through customs; he did not reveal whether
or not he acquiesced to the demand.
¶9. (S) Nepotism is also believed to play a significant role
in awarding scholarships and offering jobs. Knowing the
right people at the Ministry of Higher Education can
determine admission to the best schools or can mean a
scholarship for study abroad. An Embassy FSN stated that the
Director of International Cooperation, a long-time contact,
offered to give his son a scholarship to Morocco on the basis
of their acquaintance. If you do not know someone, money can
also do the trick. There are many stories of Tunisians
paying clerks at the Ministry of Higher Education to get
their children into better schools than were merited by their
test scores. Government jobs — a prize in Tunisia — are
also believed to be doled out on the basis of connections.
Leila Ben Ali’s late mother, Hajja Nana, is also reported to
have acted as a broker for both school admissions and
government job placement, providing her facilitation services
for a commission. Among the complaints from the protestors
in the mining area of Gafsa were allegations that jobs in the
Gafsa Phosphate Company were given on the basis of
connections and bribery.
¶10. (S/NF) 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. The GOT’s strong
censorship of the press ensures that stories of familial
corruption are not published. The Family’s corruption
remains a red line that the press cross at their own peril.
Although the February imprisonment of comedian Hedi Oula
Baballah was ostensibly drug-related, human rights groups
speculate his arrest was punishment for a 30 minute stand-up
routine spoofing the President and his in-laws (Tunis D).
International NGOs have made the case that the harsh prison
conditions faced by journalist Slim Boukdhir, who was
arrested for failing to present his ID card and insulting a
police officer, are directly related to his articles
criticizing government corruption. Corruption remains a
topic relegated to hushed voices with quick glances over the
The Elephant in the Room
¶11. (S) Several Tunisian economists argue that it does not
matter whether corruption is actually increasing because
“perception is reality.” The perception of increasing
corruption and the persistent rumors of shady backroom
dealings has a negative impact on the economy regardless of
the veracity. Contacts tell us they afraid to invest for
fear that the family will suddenly want a cut. “What’s the
point?” Alaya Bettaieb asked, “The best case scenario is that
my investment succeeds and someone important tries to take a
cut.” Persistently low domestic investment rates bear this
out (Ref H). Foreign bank accounts, while illegal, are
reportedly commonplace. A recent Ministry of Finance amnesty
to encourage Tunisians to repatriate their funds has been an
abject failure. Bettaeib stated that he plans to incorporate
his new business in Mauritania or Malta, citing fear of
unwanted interference. Many economists and business people
note that strong investment in real estate and land reflects
the lack of confidence in the economy and an effort to keep
their money safe (Ref C).
¶12. (S) Thus far, foreign investors have been undeterred, and
according to Tunisian business contacts, largely unaffected.
Foreign investment continues to flow in at a healthy rate,
even excluding the privatizations and huge Gulf projects
which have yet to get underway. Foreign investors more
rarely report encountering the type of extortion faced by
Tunisians, perhaps reflecting that foreign investors have
recourse to their own embassies and governments. British Gas
representatives told the Ambassador they had not encountered
any impropriety. XXXXXXXXXXXX stated that several years ago
Belhassen Trabelsi attempted to strong arm a German company
producing in the offshore sector, but that after the German
Embassy intervened Trabelsi was explicitly cautioned to avoid
offshore companies. Despite pronouncements about increasing
domestic investment, the GOT focuses heavily on increasing
FDI flows to the country, particularly in the offshore
sector. Nevertheless, there are still several examples of
foreign companies or investors being pressured into joining
with the “right” partner. The prime example remains
McDonald’s failed entry into Tunisia. When McDonald’s chose
to limit Tunisia to one franchisee not of the GOT’s choosing,
the whole deal was scuttled by the GOT’s refusal to grant the
necessary authorization and McDonald’s unwillingness to play
the game by granting a license to a franchisee with Family
¶13. (S) Although the petty corruption rankles, it is the
excesses of President Ben Ali’s family that inspire outrage
among Tunisians. With Tunisians facing rising inflation and
high unemployment, the conspicuous displays of wealth and
persistent rumors of corruption have added fuel to the fire.
The recent protests in the mining region of Gafsa provide a
potent reminder of the discontent that remains largely
beneath the surface. This government has based its
legitimacy on its ability to deliver economic growth, but a
growing number of Tunisians believe those as the top are
keeping the benefits for themselves.
¶14. (S) Corruption is a problem that is at once both
political and economic. The lack of transparency and
accountability that characterize Tunisia’s political system
similarly plague the economy, damaging the investment climate
and fueling a culture of corruption. For all the talk of a
Tunisian economic miracle and all the positive statistics,
the fact that Tunisia’s own investors are steering clear
speaks volumes. Corruption is the elephant in the room; it
is the problem everyone knows about, but no one can publicly
acknowledge. End Comment.
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