New Wikileaks: US Knew Tunisian Gov. Rotten Corrupt, Supported Ben Ali Anyway

The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten released a series of US diplomatic cables from 2006 on massive and pervasive corruption and nepotism in Tunisia and its effect on economic development and social problems. The cables show that the United States government was fully aware of the dangerous and debilitating level of corruption in Tunisia, and its anti-democratic implications. But they raise the question of whether Washington was wise to make Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, despite his clear foibles, the pillar of its North Africa policy because of his role, as a secular strongman, in repressing Muslim movements (as William MacLean of Reuters argues).

The US embassy in Tunis noted the contradictions of what was once called ‘the Tunisian miracle’– relative stability and security and 5% growth a year, but with Mafia style corruption on the part of ruling cliques that was discouraging foreign investment and contributing to failing banks and high unemployment.

Most debilitating, and destabilizing, has been high levels of unemployment, especially for college graduates:

‘ Unemployment, however, is a growing concern and is one on which every GOT official is focused. Official unemployment figures leveled off at 14 percent in 2005, after a steady declines dating from 1999s 15.8 percent. Even at 14 percent, however, this figure is consistently challenged as too optimistic by first hand accounts of university graduates unable to find jobs and reports of increasing numbers of ever-more qualified applicants seeking Embassy jobs.’

It was in some important part the college-educated unemployed and their sympathizers that brought down Ben Ali’s regime.

The cables recognize the pervasiveness of government corruption, and the scandals it gave rise to. The cables estimate that 50% of the country’s economic elite was somehow related to President Ben Ali, and warn that they were increasingly showing off their opulence in public, raising the hackles of the poor and unemployed. Among those mentioned in the survey of nepotism was Imed Trabelsi, favored nephew of former first lady Leila Ben Ali, who was stabbed to death on Saturday in the course of the popular uprising.

‘ In early 2006, Tunisias Arab Institute of Business Leaders and the Young Entrepreneurs Center released separate investment climate surveys that pointedly criticize Tunisias declining levels of business confidence, suggesting the “good connections required for business success” is a chief culprit (reftel). A “cumbersome administration” and difficulty accessing capital are also notable obstacles for businesses here. ‘

The cables are eloquent about the corruption of the Ben Ali and Trebulsi clans (the relatives and in-laws of the president) and the way it had begun dragging down the economy. The key was a kind of regime insider-trading. The dictator Ben Ali approved all new projects, and:

This arrangement has permitted President Ben Alis extended family (siblings, in-laws, and distant relatives) to become aware of, to assert interests in, and to carve out domains in virtually every important sector of the Tunisian economy.

The Family was alleged to have been especially advantaged in real estate deals and importation of foreign goods. In addition, the corruption got to the point where it greatly weakened the financial system, because the Family threw lots of bank loans (presumably on favorable terms) to cronies who never paid them back:

‘ The weak financial system has also been manipulated. One local financial expert blames the Family for chronic banking sector woes due to the great percentage of non-performing loans issued through crony connections, and has essentially paralyzed banking authorities from genuine recovery efforts.’

A corrupt, closed economic elite that grabs most of the new income arriving in the country and acts so irresponsibly that it even weakens the foundations of the banking system? Does any of that sound familiar to American readers?

The pervasive and high-level corruption in Tunisia badly hurt foreign investment, which in turn hurt employment. There was even an attempt to shake down McDonald’s, which had spent 7 years making costly preparations to enter the Tunisian market, what with licences, real estate leases, finding local partners and suppliers, etc.:

These tactics have also negatively impacted U.S. investment — the prime example of which is McDonalds unsuccessful seven-year effort to invest in Tunisia in the 1990s…. Their investment, however, was scuttled by a last minute intervention by First Family personalities who reportedly told McDonalds representatives that “they had chosen the wrong partner.” The implication was clear: either get the “right” partner or face the consequences: McDonalds chose to pull out completely at great cost.

The extent of the corruption involving the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans was so great that it not only had bad economic effects, but impeded democratization efforts:

‘ 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. ‘

Despite its vast extent and potentially severe consequences, the cables say, the corruption of the First Family was a red line for the press and could not be publicly discussed in the newspapers. At least one major prosecution of a journalist for political slander was pursued when he slammed the Trabelsis.

(In this regard, the inability of the regime to shut down millions of Twitter and Facebook accounts or to control YouTube was not entirely inconsequential.– Juan)

Four and a half years ago, the US embassy was sanguine about the situation continuing, because it thought the Tunisian public mired in apathy:

‘ However, the lack of Tunisian political activism, or even awareness, seems to be a more serious impediment. While frustration with the First Familys 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.’

Posted in Tunisia | 28 Responses | Print |

28 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    Conspicuously lacking from your narratives is of course the Old Colonial Power who do like to pull strings.

    Is Quai d´’Orsay losing its touch?

  2. I once read some social psychologist’s speculations on the nature of what he called “slack.” Referring to the difference, as I recall it, between a polity’s “norms” and what actually happens in the street (or on the Street, these days.)

    The stated rules of a society, he noted (well aware of the manifest jejune nature of the observation,) are always a lot stricter than what is actually enforced in the way of tolerable and excusable behavior. So the drunk-driving teenager or older person may get a pass from the kindly-disposed or just tired cop, or prosecutor, or judge. The Congressperson takes bribes and violates campaign finance “laws,” but as long as he or she keeps the gates of the local Army base open and earmarks flowing, guess who keeps that high office nominally dedicated to the “general welfare?” And if all the laws and ordinances and regulations in effect were strictly enforced with active, constant investigations under way, pretty soon we would all be in jail.

    So there has to be some “slack” in “the system,” what engineers call “play” or “working tolerances,” or just like a car engine with zero clearances on bearing surfaces, it would grind itself up and full-stop, and not run again without a complete rebuilding.

    Too bad for us — as long as the individual human consciousness and behaviors are modulated by the pleasure centers of the ol’ limbic system, designed or accommodated by happenstance to reward excess and encourage pleasure-seeking in parallel with other old-brain functions like the tendency to tribalism and the kind of “altruism” that expresses itself in Syndicate-type loyalties and self-dealing, we are gonna have a problem.

    Interesting that ad hoc reactions of large numbers of people very occasionally rise to some kind of revulsion, some maybe atavistic shock of recognition that the Tunisian virtual aristocracy/kleptocracy (and maybe our own military-industrial-Congressional-financial “industry”-media-education syndicate (an awkward synechdoche, unfortunately) has mutated from more-or-less-tolerable symbiosis, to less tolerable parasitism, to outright aggressive metastatic cancer that can only be terminal for the rest of the body politic.

    And of course, “revolutions” are too often a simple turning of the wheel, with a lot of death and violence, winding up with a Lenin or Robespierre, as those who see the levers of power standing ungrasped and with the wit and impulse to grab them, do the usual, and it’s just pure fortuity whether you end up with a George Washington, or a George Washington Plunkitt. link to “Honest graft” may be a tolerable manifestation of the principle of “slack.” The Ben Ali level of corruption in a “climate of frustrated expectations” was not.

    I wonder if David Petraeus and Lloyd Blankfein or any of the many less visible but equally pathological members of our own “Trabelsi family” will, as they used to say in Vaudeville, finally “get the hook…” And what, if anything, might fill their niches in the political economy.

    • It is that ‘slack’ in systems which make them inherently unstable. In politics its the purpose of the ‘opposition’- the party not in government to address this ‘slack’ by drawing attention to it when it becomes too pronounced – that’s how the system is kept in trim.[in Australia small Parties hold a balance of power and “keep the bastards honest’ ..or at least try] When there is no real opposition there’s no checks to put the system back into trim and eventually the whole tears itself apart.

      Theres a couple of other posts which ask the same question re Egypt and the US…the same applies to all systems – when they are not balanced they tear themselves apart – -often the drastic actions taken to ‘correct’ the imbalance at that stage only serve to make it worse – its not a matter of ‘if’ its just ‘when’.

  3. You just noticed, professor, that the US supports Arab dictatorships fully knowing their despotism and corruption?

    It doesn’t matter to them, as long as they keep the “fundamentalist”, “extremist”, “terrorist”, “radical” Islamists at bay. Notice how the US often worries democracy would bring Islamists; is that not an acknowledgment of their popularity? Isn’t that what democracy is all about? The choice of the people? The rule of the people?

    Let them choose then; or shut the spreading democracy shit.

  4. Pervasive mafia-like corruption? Nepotism and collusion among the super-wealthy elites to make themselves richer by plundering the country? High security police state to stomp out any flickering of dissension? High unemployment even among the college educated? Open flaunting of symbols of wealth and privilege with jewelry, limousines, mansions and private jets?

    I don’t see anything here that our government would not find normal or even admirable.Those who work so hard in the government for such “modest” salaries could only be jealous.

    The only thing that I hope that they might learn from their shock at this uprising is that it is possible for them to go too far with their blatant corruption and flaunting of their power and wealth, and that some few people might finally rise up and cause some trouble.

  5. This issue hopefully will bring home to people the real nature and root cause of what the problem is in the Arab world. If there is a effort in the media to confuse people over the real nature of so-called “secular” and so-called “moderate” Arab leaders, it will only reveal the true nature of the journalists involved. If a significant part of the public refuse to let go of the idea that the “ones that look like us” are somehow the good guys, and the “ones that don’t” are the bad ones, this will reveal how far we travelled toward a new form of fascism.

  6. I wonder if the message other autocratic leaders will take from this is to keep their population ‘dumb’. Tunisia has a very educated population. Unemployed and educated is often a dangerous combination for governments.

    In comparison, Egypt has seen a rise in illiteracy and a probably related increase in sectarianism, the later a common strategy by rulers to divide ‘the masses’.

  7. what suprises me most is the classicfication of Tunisia in the Transparency organization reports; the criteria used by transparancy are neither reliable nor valid! they have to reconsider them immediately

    Actually Ben Ali’s regime had used the ranking of tranparency to deny corruption “accusations”!

  8. Wikileaks 1)frees the oppressed 2)saves lives by revealing the truth.

    Strange, Obama seems to be hostile to the truth, and benefiting from the lies.

  9. Fortunately, it can’t happen here. Right?

    But if it ever did it would be a lot worse, considering the rights afforded by the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

    Then the question becomes what will our all-volunteer army do?

  10. It’s not totally splitting hairs to say there’s a difference between saying the US “supported,” Ben Ali, and your analysis of the cables which reflects their tacit acceptance.

    What the US is now presented with in Tunisia, and in Lebanon, is an opportunity to do what is appropriate. By an large, doing what is appropriate is nothing, or at most to act in an even-handed manner, and as benignly as possible, to encourage a reasoned discourse leading to a fair and equitable future for all concerned. An ideal? Sure.

    US objectives are usually best served by stability. So, our policies must be to First Do No Harm. The cables seem to reflect an appreciation for the realities of things and nowhere advocate doing otherwise.

    IF the US continues with that approach, despite the pressures we can expect to be brought to DO SOMETHING!!!, it may not be pretty, but events are more likely to unfold in a way that actually supports stability and a more enduring peace. These are two great cases where the US needs to sit on its hands.

    • Of course, “the US” and “we” are in policy-world reality a set of very disparate parts.

      I doubt that there’s any consensus around the odd notion that “US objectives are usually best served by stability,” which if you are talking about the interests of the mythical Average Person may be compellingly true. But if you are talking about the various CIA directorates and the “military intelligence” and Special Ops and ambitious general-officer fractions and NSA and the rest of the state security apparatus that tolerates insects like us who maybe see and speak too much about what “they” collectively do, along with the many who have used the compromised polity and fading wealth of the American Experiment as their springboard to power and wealth and self-interest, that’s pretty demonstrably “true” only in the small sense that serial corrupt dictatorships, aided by School of the Americas-style population control, achieve a kind of meta-stability in which Oliver North and his successors and simulacra can thrive.

      So you can bet that the tiny fraction of “us,” the “we” who attended the Bilderberg gathering, link to, at Palm Springs in October of last year were concerned about “stability,” only in the limited sense that the currencies in which their liquid wealth is held, and the titles to their many properties, and the rules that apply to the businesses they represent or own, remain “stable,” at least stable enough to allow their “people” to spot and take advantage of, or actively foment, instability of the kleptocratic and “anti-democratic” kind.

      Reification and hypostatisation and personification are justly known as “fallacies.” Maybe it would be best for the larger body of humans, kept in ignorance and driven to poverty and incited as we are into partisan hatreds and disaffections and open warfare for the benefit of a few, to have “the US sit on its hands.” Which of the many visible and hidden hands of “the US” do you think will sit out this and all the other geopolitical dances that are performed upon the severed heads of Average People?

      • OK, when my premise is that the US is “we”, and actions need to conform to “our” best interests, I am immediately off base in the cosmic scheme of things. I do, however, believe the enlightened best interests of the US, in such a narrow sense, are not inconsistent with that perspective.

        Complexity is by nature tough to manage, and any sort of popular revolution has got to peg the scale when it comes to presenting a forecasting challenge, or environment in which you might aspire to manage events. First do no harm, has got to be the wisest course, in Tunisia or Lebanon. I just heard Baby Doc has returned to Haiti: who wudda thunk it??? And who would have the temerity to tell us what the upshot of that will be? Well, there will be people who will think they’ve got a plan to do just that, as there are creative sorts now contemplating T and L, but they are not just delusional in their planning, but dangerously so. Wiser hands will find the discipline to sit on them.

  11. We’ve heard this over and over since the Cold War, that the U.S. supported some corrupt autocrat. These are, and have been, statements made by those who fail to recognize the nature of the world. In the Third World, MOST countries are run by corrupt autocrats. It is simply the way political affairs are conducted. Those at the top are there to benefit their own interests and their countries do not have a tradition of the rule of law like the US and other nations that, at least, hold in check the forces of avarice and the thirst for power.
    Realistically (and obviously), if something like the Soviet Union or Islamic extremism comes along (or Nazi Germany) that is dedicated to the destruction the U.S., you don’t get to reinvent the world and its leaders in order to establish countervailing strategies or alliances. It’s naive to assume that is possible. You play the hand you are dealt in the interest of your country, because not to do so is a very poor choice.
    I happen to be familiar with Indonesia, now a democracy, but still riddled with what we in the West would call corruption, because bribery in such societies is not seen as bribery, but the norm. If you need a cop, you pay him. If you need less taxes, then you pay off the various tax collectors, and they all demand it. If you need something from the government, you pay the appropriate sum to the appropriate person and he makes the visa appear, or the problem go away. Even after a democratic revolution, the current president of Indonesia, a reformer, and a good man, cannot change a society except in certain measure. It is from our point of view a corrupt society. Bribery is expected and is the norm. Indonesia though has been the ally of the US (quietly) for a long time, as a countervailing force, first, against communism, and now as a piece on the chessboard against an increasingly militaristic and openly threatening China. Would anyone with half a brain actually expect the U.S. to sever its relationship with Indonesia now, or when it was far worse, because of the whining of those who have preposterous expectations about the nature of other governments? Only adolescents hold such views (so let’s be adults), or those who make such statements in an attempt to disadvantage the US due to their own ideology.

    • Would anyone with half a brain actually expect the U.S. to sever its relationship with Indonesia now, or when it was far worse, because of the whining of those who have preposterous expectations about the nature of other governments?

      I reject the notion that it is idiocy for people to demand that the United States, or any other country, live by it’s stated ideals.

      When the Indonesian coup took place and the massacres of socialists began leading to deaths on an almost unimaginable scale it would have been appropriate for the United States to condemn those atrocities. Instead they saw fit to look the other way.

      Which is to say nothing of the other coups against democratically elected governments that the United States has planned, encouraged and supported over the decades.

      It may be inappropriate or foolish to want the United States to make enemies of despots and dictators, but it’s simply vicious to explicitly undermine democracies when they elect leftist parties, or people who look out for the interests of their own countries rather than fall in at the tail end of the US’ conga line of sycophants.

      After a half-century of sidling up beside torturers and murderers is anyone truly surprised that the United States is now known for practicing torture? Or the United States’ president now reserves the right to not only imprison whoever he wants without charge, but even to have him murdered without oversight? Or that the United States military accidentally destroyed al-Jazeera’s place of business in both Afganistan and Iraq? Or that a United States Senator has leaned on private companies to stop them from allowing Wikileaks to use their webspace despite Wikileaks, or it’s leadership, having never been charged with a relevant crime?

      You become who you choose to associate with.

    • Hey, David, would you contest that a whole lot of the “Third World autocrats” were actively and/or covertly put in and maintained in place by the actions of one or more of the many hidden hands that make up the nominal “American” instruments of “foreign policy?” And that often those stratagems involved frustrating and undoing activities by the inhabitants of those countries and sub-areas that looked suspiciously like “democracy in action,” albeit with election outcomes that Our Leaders and Rulers did not happen to cotton to?

      “Dedicated to the destruction of the US?” Where do you get your notions on the subject? Is some desire for local self-determination, or anger at being killed by machines, willy-nilly, now to be Authoritatively Stated to be rising to dedication to US destruction? And maybe you could read a lot of history about WW II and the Cold War and maybe come to the conclusion that it’s a lot more complex and ambiguous than you can fit in a little blog comment that requires one to reduce complexities to simplistic certitudes and reaffirmations of Matters of Faith?

  12. Adam, I find myself agreeing with everything you’ve written – right up to the point where you see the US as a follower , not a leader…
    “After a half-century of sidling up beside torturers and murderers is anyone truly surprised that the United States is now known for practicing torture?”
    Unfortunately the US hasn’t been ‘learning’ torture and abuse by ‘hanging around with the wrong crowd’ as it were – the US has been practicing torture and abuse since the beginning and has exported it to other countries via their military and covert ops. (not to mention the wonderful role model the Prison system continues to be )
    The US behavior in this regard has added to an environment which normalizes such practices.
    That you haven’t noticed any of this before now is just an indication of how bad the stink has become.

  13. “Does any of that sound familiar to American readers?”

    I’m sure it does. but what good does it do to “know” anything these days?

    So what!! They are corrupt.

    Has any of this writing all over the internet really done any good for the peace movement? No.

    The peace movement is dead. It’s been infiltrated by US national security “specialists”…not to mention other country’s spies and thugs that love their jobs spying and prying into the lives of “average” citizens.

    The creepiest are the zionists that run in teams amidst the “peace” movement sites, doing all sorts of dirty work.

    I just don’t see what Tunisia has done that is any different from most other nations that have divided the planet among themselves.

    The “peace” movement has been damaged by the internet by getting side-lined into other tangents. Most sites involved seem more concerned about the money they get people to donate and to see their names plastered all over what they think are the more influential sites. Its all about ego anymore. Not about peace.

    It seems like many have used the wars and other crisis to push their own agendas.

    Humans really never change. None of this is new. Its ancient history really.

  14. Large numbers of young Tunisians, men and women, study in French universities. Tunisia itself has a very good, if somewhat elitiste, education system. This nigh have had a role in keeping the protests more balanced and clearly non-religious in their tone.

  15. None of what has happened in Tunisia is surprising considering past US government actions regarding kleptocrats. Just look at US government support for Batista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua, Marcos in the Philippines, Mbutu in Congo, and Suharto in Indonesia. Those are just the most notable examples. Somoza is particularly illustrative because of the way he brought about his own downfall. The Somoza family was cruising along with the rest of the elites in Nicaragua until that fateful earthquake destroyed much of the capital in 1972. Somoza’s cronies stole most of the international earthquake assistance, cutting out most of the rest of national elite’s families from the feeding frenzy, thereby setting in motion the Sandanista revolution’s success. It seems that these autocrats never learn that old Wall Street dictum — “Bulls make money, bears make money, pigs get slaughtered.”

    • I am really glad someone pointed this out. We’ve had a very long history of supporting some very nasty regimes who are allowed a great deal of leeway in return for supporting a general foriegn policy of the US, whether it be anti-terrorism or anti-communism. We supported a number of foul dictatorships in Latin America who were known for their corruption and illegal drug profiteering (e.g. Bolivia, Panama, etc) simply because they were anti-communist.

  16. It strikingly resembles the attitude of the EU officials who were aware of the disastrous situation concerning the rising debt in the countries such as Greece and they didn’t do anything to put a stop to it. The warnings, if heeded could have helped to prevent the catastrophic results in both cases.

  17. Toughness and persistance equaly to the chararcter of man what carbon is to steel. Now you clearly see toughness, or tyrant persistance is the only source to great success, don’t you?

  18. The revolution/action in Tunisia has no Islamic SLANT to it. Rather it appears to be the result of a movement of the will of a society against oppression. DISCUSS

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