Following the detention of Nabil Karoui just a week before the start of the presidential campaign period, Karoui’s wife Saloua Smaoui picked up the baton and set off to campaign for her husband in his hometown of Gafsa. Incarnating the image of a close-knit family and loyal wife, Smaoui dedicated herself to defending her husband and demanding his freedom. The objective? To pursue the presidential campaign in which Karoui has invested his station Nessma TV and his association Khalil Tounes, among other resources, over the past several years.

Before aspiring to a potential future as first lady, Saloua Smaoui was an industrial engineer. She headed Microsoft Tunisia for five years, from 2004-2009. In September 2011, Smaoui was appointed Microsoft Government Industry Leader for Africa and the Middle East, a position that she holds to this day.

The Microsoft agreement façade: boosting employment in Tunisia

Leaked on the Wikileaks platform in 2011, a dispatch issued by the American embassy on September 22, 2006 cites Saloua Smaoui in her role as Microsoft Tunisia Director General.

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The dispatch reveals the inking of an agreement between Microsoft and the Tunisian government during the Microsoft Government Leaders Forum in South Africa. Under the agreement, Microsoft committed to investing in training, research and development in Tunisia. In exchange, the Tunisian government committed to exclusively using Microsoft software licenses. The leaked document indicates that Saloua Smaoui described the agreement as a « win-win for both Microsoft and the GOT  [government of Tunisia] ». According to Smaoui, the contract aligned with government priorities to encourage the professional integration of university graduates.

In addition, the bilateral contract outlined telecommunications training for handicapped Tunisians with the goal of enabling them to find employment. The leaked document points out that former first-lady Leila Ben Ali ran a charity for handicapped persons. Under the described agreement, Microsoft and Tunisian authorities were to collaborate in e-governance, internet security, intellectual property rights and increasing the capabilities of IT programs. What the agreement did not apparently disclose were plans intended to censor the internet by imposing new navigation procedures on the basis of security reasons.

Institutionalizing censorship

The dispatch mentions a training program for officials in the Ministries of Justice and Interior on « how to use computers and the internet to fight crime ». Moreover, Microsoft allegedly provided the government with original source codes for its programs.

In 2009, the Tunisian government shelled out 7.8 million dinars to purchase 12,000 licenses in order to update its IT system with Microsoft software. According to the leaked document, Smaoui specified that the source codes provided would only be shared with a small number of officials.

A rather controversial decision in a context where far wealthier nations are opting for markedly less costly technology. In 2010, former Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes (European Commission) noted that the installation cost of proprietary software represented « a waste of public money » as global trends reveal a preference for the use of open-source software, even in the United States. Smaoui, however, conveyed that the agreement inked with Tunisian authorities was the fruit of five years of negotiations. Notably, these negotiations were launched following the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis.

The Tunisian government’s objectives, however, were not limited to the fight against cyber crimes or to boosting employment in the IT sector. The underlying wager was in fact to control the internet and ban sites like Youtube.

Steve Ballmer and Ben Ali, october 2007

Be that as it may, in 2007 Microsoft Executive Director Steve Ballmer himself awarded president Ben Ali a trophy for his « worldwide leadership in information and communication technologies, in recognition of his avant-garde role in the promotion of communication technologies internationally ». In light of the certain fate to which cyber-dissidents were bound during the Ben Ali era, the award was nothing short of a paradox.