US embassy cable - 07TUNIS1058

OCTOBER 18TH MOVEMENT: FOCUS ON 2009 ELECTION

Identifier: 07TUNIS1058
Wikileaks: View 07TUNIS1058 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Tunis
Created: 2007-08-03 15:44:00
Classification: CONFIDENTIAL
Tags: PHUM PGOV PREL KDEM KPAO TS
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
VZCZCXRO0819
PP RUEHTRO
DE RUEHTU #1058/01 2151544
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 031544Z AUG 07
FM AMEMBASSY TUNIS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 3625
INFO RUCNMGH/MAGHREB COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 TUNIS 001058 
 
SIPDIS 
 
SIPDIS 
 
DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/FO (GRAY AND CARPENTER); DRL/FO 
(BARKS-RUGGLES); NEA/MAG (HOPKINS/HARRIS); NEA/PI 
LONDON AND PARIS FOR NEA WATCHER 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/02/2017 
TAGS: PHUM, PGOV, PREL, KDEM, KPAO, TS 
SUBJECT: OCTOBER 18TH MOVEMENT: FOCUS ON 2009 ELECTION 
 
REF: A. TUNIS 986 
 
     B. TUNIS 840 
     C. 06 TUNIS 2661 
 
Classified By: Ambassador Robert F. Godec for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d) 
 
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Summary 
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1.  (C)  On July 26, the Ambassador met with five civil 
society activists involved in the October 18th movement (an 
alliance of disparate human rights and political activists 
that includes moderate Islamists).  The October 18 group 
expressed deep concern about the lack of freedom of 
expression and freedom of association in Tunisia, stressing 
the GOT needs to ease restrictions now if the Presidential 
and parliamentary elections in 2009 are to be meaningful. 
They added the lack of political freedom is discouraging 
investment and slowing economic growth. 
 
2.  (C)  While the October 18 group includes some of 
Tunisia's most serious opposition politicians (e.g. Nejib 
Chebbi), ongoing internal divisions over the role of 
Islamists threaten its continued existence and hamper its 
ability to attract a widespread following.  While the group 
welcomes US Government advocacy for greater freedom, they 
have little interest in other engagement with the United 
States because of their opposition to USG regional policies. 
The Embassy is developing an action plan, focusing on freedom 
of expression and association, leading up to the 2009 
elections.  End summary. 
 
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Who's Who 
--------- 
 
3.  (C)  On July 26, the Ambassador met with Nejib Chebbi 
(former Secretary General of the opposition Progressive 
Democratic Party and current member of the party's political 
bureau), Lotfi Hajji (president of the unauthorized Tunisian 
Journalists Syndicate), Samir Dilou (a member of the 
International Association for the Support of Political 
Prisoners), Fethi Jerbi (a member of the unauthorized 
Congress Party for the Republic or CPR), and Mohamed Nouri 
(President of the International Association for the Support 
of Political Prisoners, AISPP).  Chebbi, Haji, Dilou, and 
Nouri were four of the seven individuals who began a hunger 
strike on October 18, 2005 (Ref C) to protest GOT 
restrictions on freedom of expression; Jerbi stood in for 
Abderraouf Ayadi (an original hunger striker from the CPR). 
The movement subsequently expanded to include a disparate 
alliance of civil society activists, including additional 
moderate Islamists. 
 
------------------------------ 
Obstacles to Political Freedom 
------------------------------ 
 
4.  (C)  When asked if they felt the July 24 release of 
political prisoner Mohamed Abbou (Ref A) was indicative of 
growing political freedom, the group was unanimous that their 
answer was, unfortunately, no.  Chebbi responded that while 
civil society applauds Abbou's release, it has no assurances 
(or confidence) that the GOT will not imprison outspoken 
activists in the future.  A more genuine indicator of 
increasing political space, he continued, would be specific 
measures to improve freedom of association and expression 
(e.g., access to television and radio for political parties, 
or registering new associations). 
 
5.  (C)  Over the course of the two-and-a-half hour meeting, 
the group repeatedly expressed concerns regarding freedom of 
association and freedom of expression.  Chebbi opined that in 
order for there to be meaningful Presidential and 
parliamentary elections in 2009, the GOT needs to ease 
restrictions on freedom of the press and allow opposition 
groups to organize and promote their platforms.  He 
characterized the 2009 elections as a potentially pivotal 
turning point for Tunisia, but only if preparatory measures 
are taken in 2007.  Opposition groups, he said, are orienting 
their activities towards the elections, but are hampered by 
their inability to meet freely and lack of access to local 
media.  Asked about future activities, the group explained 
that it has no concrete plans, citing problems plaguing 
freedom of association, ranging from an inability to secure 
conference venues to the presence of plainclothes policemen 
outside meetings. 
 
 
TUNIS 00001058  002 OF 002 
 
 
6.  (C)  Chebbi countered the oft-expressed GOT argument that 
rapid reforms could lead to instability, offering Tunisia's 
political reforms during the early 1980's as proof that 
growing political liberty could foster economic prosperity. 
Jerbi agreed that democracy as a whole fosters economic 
growth.  A strong press and independent judiciary counter 
corruption, Jerbi said, while political repression simply 
polarizes society and fosters extremism.  Jerbi, an economics 
professor, voiced concern that continued political repression 
would discourage continued investment in Tunisia, chasing 
away both talent and employers.  As proof that this 
phenomenon is potentially already underway, he cited the high 
unemployment rate in Tunisia, saying the official rate of 14 
percent was a dramatic underestimate. 
 
7.  (C)  Aside from the economic question, Jerbi flirted with 
positions more extreme than the others.  More than once, he 
even alluded to the possibility that some Tunisians are 
willing to take up arms against the Ben Ali regime.  Although 
he distanced himself -- and the CPR, which advocates only 
non-violent opposition -- from the notion of armed 
resistance, some members of the group found the references 
unsettling.  Ambassador stressed that the USG believes that 
the GOT has made progress in important areas, and that all 
discussion of violence is completely unacceptable.  Jerbi 
agreed that violence is unacceptable.  Chebbi told EmbOffs 
separately that he considers Jerbi extreme and not 
representative of the Movement. 
 
------------------- 
A Role for the USG? 
------------------- 
 
8.  (C)  When the Ambassador solicited the group's thoughts 
on what the USG should do to support civil society, 
participants at first avoided the question.  Nouri and Chebbi 
concurred that the democracy movement in Tunisia should be 
first and foremost a Tunisian-driven enterprise, though they 
acknowledged it would be useful if the USG lobbied the GOT 
for more press freedom and freedom of association.  There was 
an uncomfortable pause, followed by some nervous laughter, 
when the subject of the Middle East Partnership Initiative 
(MEPI) was raised; the October 18th group displayed a 
distinct preference for assistance not associated with the 
USG.  (Note: Many civil society activists in Tunisia have 
declined to apply for MEPI small grants, because of their 
opposition to US policies in the region.  End note.)  Hajji 
offered the most concrete wish list, noting that a project 
similar to Freedom House's Blue Umbrella (with international 
NGOs providing "cover" to local activists) would be useful. 
Hajji, the president of an organization currently 
unrecognized by the GOT, also wished for an office where his 
members could meet freely.  His colleagues good-naturedly 
pointed out that even if he had a door, there would probably 
be plainclothes policemen blocking it. 
 
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Comment 
------- 
 
9.  (C)  Through partnerships such as the October 18th 
Movement and the Coalition Against the Death Penalty (Ref B), 
Tunisian civil society has demonstrated a high degree of 
initiative and the ability to coordinate between sometimes 
disparate groups.  The group's reluctance to receive grants 
from the USG complicates the issue of assistance.  For the 
most part, the group seemed to be asking the Embassy to do 
what they cannot without reprisals: advocate for greater 
freedom of expression and freedom of association with the 
GOT.  The Embassy is exploring non-financial forms of 
assistance, in addition to greater cooperation with other 
diplomatic missions to better support human rights and civil 
society activists.  The Embassy is also developing a 
programming action plan, focusing on freedom of expression 
and association, leading up to the 2009 elections.  End 
Comment. 
GODEC 

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