Professor Rob Prince, University of Denver
In order to have an “American” perspective on the Tunileaks affair, Nawaat invited Rob Prince to share his thoughts on the leaked diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Tunisia. Rob Prince is a Lecture of International Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Rob served as a Peace Corps Volunteer and Staff Member in Tunis and Sousse. For more insight into Rob Prince thoughts on Tunisia, please listen to his interview with the KGNU Radio – Hemispheres about the human rights situation in our country. In this interview, we asked professor Rob about his first impression after reading the diplomatic cables; the state of the “institutionalized corruption” in the country and the consequence of these leaks on the US-Tunisia relationship; and how the Tunisian civil society, the opposition and the Tunisian online citizen media initiatives can use the leaks in their favor and push for a real change.


1. Introduction

Let me start by thanking Nawaat for collecting and posting these cables in the first place. That is a public service. It is only through reading them, discussing, analyzing them that the fog around them begins to clear.

At the outset let us also remember that of 251,000 or so cables that – as of this writing – a little less than 700 have been released or .002 % of those Wikileaks has released. Not much.

It is important to remember the process. WikiLeaks divided the number between 5 news outlets and then let the news outlets decide what to release to the public. What El Pais or the New York Times releases is what they want to release. The releases are selective and therefore can be used to create a certain spin, a certain reality. The leaks are not “lies” …or what is referred to as “black propaganda”, but are instead “gray propaganda”…one releases a part of the picture, holding back in this case what seems to be the lion’s share…thus public opinion can be manipulated.

And in the case of the cables leaked to the New York Times, it turns out that the documents went through a further filtering process, as the Times submitted what it wanted to publish to the State Department!! for approval. So it is only U.S. State Department approved cables that have seen the light of day in the NY Times. Not exactly the stuff of which the famous Pentagon Papers was made..

Of course the different news outlets have different things they want to expose, hide and in the end it is the Spanish and English sites which seem to be embarrassing the US a bit more (from what I have seen to date), while the U.S. site, the Times has focused on creating the impression that all the Arab countries would like the U.S. to attack Iran (much to Israel’s pleasure).

That having been said, many of my friends are “ambivalent” about the release of the documents, they feel the process is not controlled enough, does not have enough focus, some “innocents” (or not-so-innocents) will be hurt.

I don’t share this view at all.

WikiLeaks has provided a valuable service to the world. More and more countries want to conduct their foreign policy in secrecy, away from the eyes of the public. And it is foreign policy conducted largely in secrecy that leads to different forms of totalitarianism. “The need for secrecy” essentially provides a veil for corporate and state crimes. The kind of shallow jingo-istic hysteria which seems to be permeating the U.S. body politic at this moment is merely an excuse to take censorship here to yet another level.

So three cheers for WikiLeaks, for Assange. I praise his courage and hope that the hysteria that has greeted the cable release here in the USA will die down and that cooler heads will prevail

2. Tunileaks, a broad framework

I know that is a long introduction to the Tunisian cables and the question at hand, but I think it important to place the discussion within such a broad framework.

For example, from what I can tell, it is not the New York Times that has revealed anything about the US-Tunisia relationship, it has been the Guardian of London and El Pais of Spain. This is curious. What to make of it? An attempt to embarrass the US in its N. Africa policy? Perhaps…there is a certain competition for Algerian natural gas between Spain and the U.S., there are voices in UK, especially at the Guardian have been critical of U.S. Middle East and N. Africa policy since September 11, 2001. How do such things play into the release of the documents. Dunno, but it would be a bit foolish to think that some strategic considerations (if only to embarrass the U.S.) are not at play.

I have now read the Tunisian cables – the ones you have provided at Nawaat – through, three times.

There are certain themes which stand out, others which appear to be omitted. My first impression, which I have written and spoken about is that there was less there than meets the eye, ie, that they were not so interesting except for a few details here and there, that pretty much everything in the cables was certainly common knowledge to most Tunisians, and to those who, for various reasons, follow developments in Tunisia closely.

  • Most just gossip, ie, that Nesrine Ben Ali El Materi is “naive and clueless”,
  • or that her husband Mohammed Sakia El Materi feeds his pet tiger in Hammamet four chickens a day (but are the chickens organic!),
  • or that Imed and Moaz Trabelsi are addicted to stealing yachts from French bankers and painting them over, the way that mafia’s here in the USA steal and dissemble cars, etc, etc.

Juicy reading perhaps, but less than meets the eye at first glance until such remarks are put in context.

Even the more substantial stuff, was, with a few exceptions (the shopping list the Tunisian military would like get as U.S. aid), “not new” :

  • the general state of the country
  • the corruption of the economic sector that seems to know no bounds of those closest to the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families in economic matters,
  • the intensified levels of repression against journalists, social movements (students, trade unions) that has reached epidemic proportions
  • the impact of the social uprising in Redeyef in 2008.

We could have found out about all of this – and most of us did – elsewhere. No not much of this was new,…the ambassador would have done better reading Le Monde, Liberation or Nawaat to be honest.

After first reading the documents, a distinct sense was that the embassy, in reality, does not know that much about Tunisia. It has little feeling or understanding for what is going on “on the ground”; while aware of the growing discontent and social movement there seems to be little or know contact or even interest in speaking to people outside of narrow government circles.

And for its part, it appears that the Tunisian government (like many others) is not particularly forthcoming to American authorities, as if to hide as much as possible. In these cables, the Tunisian government gives the American embassy as little as is possible. Embassy contacts with independent voices are severely restricted. But what surprises me, is the willingness of State Department reps to accept these limitations! The Tunisian authorities seem to know how to play U.S. paranoia about Islamic fundamentalism, overstate “the Iranian threat”…ie, giving the State Department what they want to hear to elicit aid and modern weaponry.

Now the suggestion that all is not well in the US-Tunisian relationship is, I would argue, very serious stuff. More on this below.

All that is not “new”, but it does have some substantiate many things that both Tunisians and others have thought about what is going on in the country:

  • that the place is corrupt today almost beyond belief,
  • that the human rights abuses are getting worse – the torture, the forced detention, the atmosphere of fear that permeates the countries beyond the hotels and beaches of Sousse,
  • that the “economic miracle” is something less than that.
  • Or put another way, that the U.S. State Department has become aware of the many-sided crisis which has been perculating in Tunisia for a long time, and which has these past few years exploded into a general crisis of society, so much so that not even the U.S. State Department – which has known about it all along – can any longer avoid. The cat is out of the bag. The cables substantiate this.

And something else is going reading between the lines, a kind of dangerous dance that on some level the two sides are both aware of: it is as if the State Department is probing Ben Ali: are you still useful to us, they seem to be asking. And he is responding, “why yes, of course’. Tunisian authorities are somewhat defensive, nervous one would say and while the US ambassadors are not particularly rude, they are actually “diplomatic’, they have made mild criticisms to Ben Ali himself, to the Tunisian foreign secretary. And the cables themselves make the situation clear: all is not well in the relationship.

3.What is “the problem” for U.S. Tunisian policy?

Not that complicated. No the Obama Administrations has few illusions about Ben Ali. Remember even what I would describe as our least eminent president, George Bush, found it necessary to make a public criticism of Ben Ali to his face not that long ago! The problem is this: the U.S. would like to see change in Tunisia, but only that change that supports the status quo; the cables suggest that Washington no longer cares that much about Ben Ali today nor sees him as particularly effective in helping realize US strategic goals, but they are concerned with who might replace him.

That is the problem… those damned reformed movements! You can never tell which way they will go and if they will, either economically or strategically go off in another direction. After all, look at those Latin Americans – Ecuadorians, Venezualans, even Brazil, Bolivia and Chile all seeking their own path to development, snubbing the World Bank, IMF etc. An “uncontrolled’ reform in Tunisia could well have consequences far behind the little country itself…thus one must (or the State Dept. must) tread carefully.

The State Department seems to be probing a suitable replacement, one that will follow the broad guide lines of U.S. foreign policy (privatization and openness of the economy, support for the war on terrorism) and for Tunisia to play a role in U.S. strategic and military goals (they have merged) in the Middle East and North Africa.

It would do Tunisians, even Ben Ali (!) well to recall how many U.S. allies different American adminstrations have discarded…the list is long and I will only mention a few – the Diem regime in the 1960s, Noriega of Panama – first a key U.S. ally, now rotting in a jail in Florida, the most famous ally-turned-enemy Bin Laden, Marcos of the Philippines.

Although Habib Bourguiba bent the national will to accommodate the United States in many ways, in the end, it didn’t seem to matter. He had carefully cultivated U.S. support from the outset, even during the colonial period as a wedge against the French, and did so brilliantly. I have little doubt that the presence of the Peace Corps in Tunisia (in which I participated so long ago) was a concession to the U.S. made specifically to irritate the French (which it did).

In any case, Bourguiba thought all that cowtowing to Washington would keep Tunisia safe from some kind of U.S. (and or Israeli) military action. But then there was the Israeli strike on the Palestinian headquarters in Tunis, something that was inconceivable without U.S. approval. Reagan didn’t hesitate to turn on Bourguiba when he thought it necessary. It left Bourguiba extremely bitter; it also revealed how “flexible” Washington could be with allies they no longer felt useful, and that such figures are “expendable”. Add to this that while it is unclear, just how involved the U.S. was with the coup that unseated Bourguiba in 1987, it has to be a bit more than coincidental that Ben Ali got some of his police training in the USA.

4. An alternative to Ben Ali?

At a certain point reading the cables, it occurred to me: they’re looking for an alternative to Ben Ali, they think “his goose is cooked” and are probing Tunisian society to find a viable alternative.

Admittedly this is just a hypothesis, and here I am sitting in Denver, high in Rockies, speculating about Tunisia. But reading the cables over, it comes through loud and clear. How so?

  • In the cables there is open admission of the overall crisis in Tunisian society, and the opposition to Ben Ali and the Trabelsi family.
  • The events of Redeyef in 2008 are noted with the fear that it might just be the opening salvo of a deeper social crisis that the US should prepared for
  • There are several notes that the US “cannot do anything” until the “post Ben Ali’ era opens. That relations with Ben Ali are jog jammed at present
  • But in its own way, the dinner with Sakhi and Nesrine Ben Ali Materi was not as vapid, or empty as I suggested above. It seems that the U.S. ambassador was feeling Materi out…as a possible replacement for his father in law. Materi impresses the ambassador that the censorship of the Tunisian media is “too much”, he suggests that his media (he owns one of the country’s two radio stations) is not afraid to hear critical voices. On Middle East policy – Israel-Palestine, Iran, Iraq – he basically follows U.S. foreign policy to the letter. Even the comments about Nesrine are interesting. If she is “naive and clueless” perhaps she will not play the kind of nefarious role of running her husband as Leila Trabelsi has with Ben Ali!

Did the ambassador “decide” that Sakhi Materi “should” replace his uncle Ben Ali…No, that is not how things work. I would guess the ambassador is “shopping around”, getting a feel for who within Tunisia’s ruling circles might cooperate with U.S. policy and if and when “the right moment” presents itself, that the U.S. would “encourage” one of a number of “candidates” for power. And of course the French and probably the British and a number of other foreign embassies are doing precisely the same thing. Afterall, the few reports we get about Ben Ali, that he has cancer, that he spends an inordinate amount of time with grand children, that the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families run not only the economy today (and are frantically trying to buy up, steal what they don’t own, also in preparation for a change in power?) and that Zine Ben Ali is showing signs of senility not unlike Bourguiba manifested in 1986.

So… the vultures are swarming…

That is what a careful reading of the WikiLeaks documents suggests. Does they scream it out loud? No… but re-read the cables and see if I am off the mark?

So there is far more there than meets the eye, and I have to admit that at least where it concerns their take on Tunisia that the State Department’s take on what is happening in the country is less stupid than I originally imagined.