US embassy cable - 06TUNIS1673 (original version)

CORRUPTION IN TUNISIA PART III: POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS (original version)

Identifier: 06TUNIS1673
Wikileaks: View 06TUNIS1673 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Tunis
Created: 2006-07-05 12:27:00
Classification: CONFIDENTIAL//NOFORN
Tags: PREL ECON PGOV EFIN ETRD EINV KDEM TS
Redacted: This cable was redacted by Wikileaks. [Show redacted version] [Compare redacted and unredacted version]
VZCZCXYZ0001
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHTU #1673/01 1861227
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 051227Z JUL 06
FM AMEMBASSY TUNIS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 1191
INFO RUEHAS/AMEMBASSY ALGIERS PRIORITY 7248
RUEHRB/AMEMBASSY RABAT PRIORITY 8179
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
RUCPDOC/USDOC WASHDC PRIORITY
C O N F I D E N T I A L TUNIS 001673 
 
SIPDIS 
 
NOFORN 
SIPDIS 
 
STATE FOR NEA/MAG - HARRIS 
STATE PLEASE PASS USTR - BELL 
USDOC FOR CLDP - TEJTEL AND ITA/MAC/ONE (NMASON) 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/02/2016 
TAGS: PREL, ECON, PGOV, EFIN, ETRD, EINV, KDEM, TS 
SUBJECT: CORRUPTION IN TUNISIA PART III: POLITICAL 
IMPLICATIONS 
 
REF: A. TUNIS 1630 
     B. TUNIS 1622 
     C. TUNIS 1255 
     D. TUNIS 311 
     E. 05 TUNIS 2266 
     F. 05 TUNIS 896 
 
Classified By: AMBASSADOR WILLIAM HUDSON FOR REASONS 1.4 (b) AND (d) 
 
1. (C/NF) SUMMARY:  This is the third of a four cable series 
on corruption's impact on the Tunisian economy and political 
future.  Domestic frustration is growing with the rumored 
vast commercial holdings of Tunisia's First Family: President 
Ben Ali, wife Leila (Trabelsi) Ben Ali and their extended 
clan, and more and more Tunisians are willing to openly 
discuss the family's alleged corruption.  However, severely 
limited freedom of speech and minimal political activism have 
restricted public discourse on the topic to date.  Our 
ability to promote freedom of expression, a cornerstone of 
our Freedom Agenda for Tunisia, is directly hindered by the 
fact that greater freedom of expression would likely lead to 
public criticism of the Family's corruption.  At the same 
time, the Family's interests complicate Ben Ali's own avowed 
"plan" for political reform because any viable successor or 
opposition could be viewed as a threat to the family's 
economic interests.  Part three of this series details the 
political implications of the family's alleged corruption. 
END SUMMARY. 
 
THE IMPACT 
---------- 
 
2. (C/NF) While corruption in Tunisia may be on a smaller 
scale than in some developing countries, the political 
relevance of the rumors is notable because corruption -- at 
least as a topic of public conversation -- is a relatively 
new phenomenon in Tunisia.  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.  Some fear that this new 
phenomenon is sucking the life-blood out of Tunisia -- 
leading to a spiraling educational, moral, social and 
economic decline.  Worse, many civil society activists 
speculate that corruption -- particularly that of First Lady 
Leila (Trabelsi) Ben Ali and the broader Trabelsi clan -- is 
the fundamental impediment to meaningful political 
liberalization. 
 
3.  (C/NF) Despite this, most Tunisians seem to be focused on 
their personal standard of living and are unwilling to risk 
their own socio-economic status by publicly denouncing the 
Ben Ali clan's rumored corruption.  Unlike a generation ago, 
Tunisia now has a large middle class with typical middle 
class aspirations.  A business contact explained that 
students are more interested in their prospects for a family, 
home ownership and buying a car than in being politically 
active.  The European Commission's Head of Delegation 
believes that the average citizen is kept "happy" through 
increased consumption.  While average Tunisians continue to 
complain about the rising cost of living and the Family's 
rumored corruption, some are beginning to reflect on the 
possible link between the two. 
 
4. (C/NF) Despite this, embassy contacts do not yet believe 
any opposition movements could gain significant domestic 
support under the anti-corruption banner.  Most dismiss the 
theory that Tunisia's latent Islamist movement could obtain 
widespread support by advancing an anti-corruption platform 
similar to the one that led Hamas to victory in Palestinian 
elections.  (NOTE: It remains unclear how non-elites might 
respond to this type of opposition. END NOTE.)  Civil society 
activists, while quick to offer examples of the Ben Ali 
clan's corruption, are more likely to complain about the lack 
of freedom and political space than to focus on corruption. 
It remains uncommon for Tunisians to suggest that Ben Ali 
should go on the basis of corruption alone or to make any 
 
specific comment regarding the President's political future, 
other than that they expect him to stay for life.  Thus, 
while international and domestic critics increasingly call 
for political reform, few Tunisians are willing to be 
politically active, and their concerns over corruption do not 
appear strong enough to motivate greater involvement. 
 
THE FUTURE 
---------- 
 
5. (C/NF) Meanwhile, the entrenched position of the President 
and his family only increases the difficulties domestic and 
international entities, including the USG, face in 
encouraging political reform in Tunisia.  As Ben Ali himself 
has suggested that he will one day be a "retired" president 
(Ref D), it is not overly optimistic to believe that his 
glacially slow political reform "plan" may include increased 
political liberties and eventually his own departure. 
However, those who believe that Ben Ali is more of a 
benevolent father than a corrupt dictator argue that the 
Family's corruption (and particularly Leila Ben Ali's 
personal influence) is the root cause of his refusal to leave 
office and/or accelerate political openness.  Given the 
popularity of corruption as a topic of discussion in private 
circles, it is extremely likely that increased freedom of 
speech, one of our main Freedom Agenda goals, would spark 
public discussions of corruption and the President's family. 
In fact, it appears that the corruption rumors are directly 
contributing to the stagnant state of the domestic press. 
The prominent case of lawyer Mohamed Abbou, who was jailed 
after writing about Trabelsi family influence and corruption, 
shows the extent the GOT will go to prevent public criticism 
of the Family's activities (Ref F).  One contact explains 
that Ben Ali and his family are "red lines" which Tunisians 
know not to cross. 
 
6. (C/NF) In addition, the Family's vested financial 
interests mean that any presidential succession scenario 
would likely require some kind of financial guarantees for 
the Family that Tunisia's still-developing economy may not be 
able to support or that Tunisian public opinion would reject. 
 During a recent meeting with Deputy Secretary Zoellick (Ref 
C), a Tunisian representative of Freedom House said that for 
a significant shift in the political status quo, it is 
necessary that those "close to the President" be given 
assurances that they would "continue to be taken care of" 
following the departure of Ben Ali.  He added that such an 
arrangement would be a tall order for the USG diplomatically, 
but that without such assurances to Ben Ali's inner circle, a 
more open political system would be difficult.  Some surmise 
that a 2005 law regarding "the benefits for former 
presidents" was crafted precisely to provide for the economic 
well being of Ben Ali's immediate family (Ref E) in the event 
of a peaceful transition.  However, the benefits outlined in 
this law would not provide nearly the standard of living to 
which the President and his relatives are accustomed. 
 
7. (C/NF) Others allege that President Ben Ali may have 
manipulated state coffers to provide for his future.  As the 
Presidency has a separate budget account, it is possible that 
this funding source could have been utilized to allow Ben Ali 
to direct funds into personal accounts.  Unlike some 
notorious rulers, however, there is limited evidence to 
support this allegation, and the President's almost 
nonexistent foreign travel does not foreshadow that he is 
planning a luxurious retirement in Europe or elsewhere. 
However, recently some rumors have circulated that the 
extended family is beginning to liquidate and consolidate its 
domestic holdings and shift some assets overseas in 
preparation for Ben Ali's ultimate departure or demise. 
Contacts cite these rumors as evidence that the Ben Ali 
regime is entering its last days and the President and his 
family are looking to make off with their fortune. 
 
8. (C/NF) There is other evidence that the Trabelsi family is 
positioning itself for a future political transition. 
Tunisians rarely discuss Ben Ali's political maneuvers 
without mentioning Leila Ben Ali's own political power and 
aspirations.  Cabinet reshuffles and official appointments 
are generally believed to go to personal allies of the 
President, or the First Lady.  The recent removal of a senior 
MOI official was believed to be due to a falling out with the 
President, while Foreign Minister Abdallah is rumored to been 
 
"kicked out" of the Palace (and installed in the MFA) 
following an altercation with Leila Ben Ali.  The scope of 
these political relationships are one way the Trabelsi clan 
are believed to be securing family members' financial 
well-being -- by installing enough influential GOT allies to 
guarantee they will not be excluded. 
 
9. (C/NF) COMMENT: The corruption rumors -- true or false -- 
are clearly working against our efforts to speed democratic 
reform in Tunisia.  As long as such rumors continue to 
spread, it is unlikely the GOT will increase political space 
that could facilitate public discourse likely to be harshly 
critical of the President.  Additionally, presidential 
succession options are limited by the need to cover-up past 
illicit activities.  However, the lack of Tunisian political 
activism, or even awareness, seems to be a more serious 
impediment.  While frustration with the First Family's 
corruption may eventually lead to increased demands for 
political liberalization, it does not yet appear to be 
heralding the end of the Ben Ali era. END COMMENT. 
HUDSON 

Latest source of this page is cablebrowser-2, released 2011-10-04