- Summary The US ambassador to Tunisia explains the North African country's ambivalent position in US foreign policy. Although a potential friend to America in the region, the country is troubled by nepotism, corruption, and the 'sclerotic' regime of ageing president Ben Ali. Key passages highlighted in yellow.
Friday, 17 July 2009, 16:19
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 05 TUNIS 000492
DEPT FOR NEA AA/S FELTMAN, DAS HUDSON, AMBASSADOR-DESIGNATE
GRAY, AND NEA/MAG FROM AMBASSADOR
EO 12958 DECL: 07/13/2029
TAGS PREL, PGOV, ECON, KPAO, MASS, PHUM, TS
SUBJECT: TROUBLED TUNISIA: WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
Classified By: Ambassador Robert F. Godec for E.O. 12958 reasons 1.4 (b ) and (d).
1. (S/NF) By many measures, Tunisia should be a close US ally. But it is not. While we share some key values and the country has a strong record on development, Tunisia has big problems. President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic and there is no clear successor. Many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities. Extremism poses a continuing threat. Compounding the problems, the GOT brooks no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Instead, it seeks to impose ever greater control, often using the police. The result: Tunisia is troubled and our relations are too.
2. (S/NF) In the past three years, US Mission Tunis has responded by offering greater cooperation where the Tunisians say they want it, but not shied from making plain the need for change. We have had some successes, notably in the commercial and military assistance areas. But we have also had failures. We have been blocked, in part, by a Foreign Ministry that seeks to control all our contacts in the government and many other organizations. Too often, the GOT prefers the illusion of engagement to the hard work of real cooperation. Major change in Tunisia will have to wait for Ben Ali's departure, but President Obama and his policies create opportunities now. What should we do to take advantage of them? We recommend:
-- keep a strong focus on democratic reform and respect for human rights, but shift the way we promote these goals; -- seek to engage the GOT in a dialogue on issues of mutual interest, including trade and investment, Middle East peace, and greater Maghreb integration; -- offer Tunisians (with an emphasis on youth) more English-language training, educational exchanges, and cultural programs; -- move our military assistance away from FMF, but look for new ways to build security and intelligence cooperation; and, -- increase high-level contacts but stress that deeper US cooperation depends on real Tunisian engagement. End Summary.
The Backdrop: Historic Relations and Shared Values
3. (SBU) The United States and Tunisia have 200 years of close ties and common interests, including advancing regional peace, combating terrorism, and building prosperity. Since independence, Tunisia deserves credit for its economic and social progress. Without the natural resources of its neighbors, Tunisia focused on people and diversified its economy. In a success all too rare, the GOT is effective in delivering services (education, health care, infrastructure and security) to its people. The GOT has sought to build a &knowledge economy8 to attract FDI that will create high value-added jobs. As a result, the country has enjoyed five percent real GDP growth for the past decade. On women's rights, Tunisia is a model. And, Tunisia has a long history of religious tolerance, as demonstrated by its treatment of its Jewish community. While significant challenges remain (above all the country's 14 percent unemployment rate) on balance Tunisia has done better than most in the region.
4. (SBU) On foreign policy, Tunisia has long played a moderate role (although recently its goal has been to &get along with everyone8). The GOT rejects the Arab League boycott of Israeli goods. Although it broke ties with Israel in 2000, the GOT has from time to time taken part in quiet discussions with Israeli officials. The GOT also supports Mahmoud Abbas' leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Tunisia participated in the Annapolis conference and has supported our efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The GOT is like-minded on Iran, is an ally in the fight against terrorism, and has maintained an Embassy in Iraq at the Charge level. Moreover, Tunisia recently signed a debt forgiveness agreement with the GOI on Paris Club terms; it is the first Arab country to do so.
5. (SBU) Finally, although Tunisians have been deeply angry over the war in Iraq and perceived US bias towards Israel, most still admire the &the American dream.8 Despite the anger at US foreign policy, we see a growing desire for English-language instruction, a wish for more educational and
TUNIS 00000492 002 OF 005
scientific exchanges, and a belief in the American culture of innovation. Tunisians see these as important for their future.
The Problem: A Sclerotic Regime and Growing Corruption
6. (C) Despite Tunisia's economic and social progress, its record on political freedoms is poor. Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems. The GOT can point to some political progress in the last decade, including an end to prior review of books and ICRC access to many prisons. But for every step forward there has been another back, for example the recent takeover of important private media outlets by individuals close to President Ben Ali.
7. (C) The problem is clear: Tunisia has been ruled by the same president for 22 years. He has no successor. And, while President Ben Ali deserves credit for continuing many of the progressive policies of President Bourguiba, he and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people. They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power. And, corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, First Lady Leila Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her; even those close to the government express dismay at her reported behavior. Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia's high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime's long-term stability are increasing.
US-Tunisian Relations: If Only We Would Say This Is Paradise
8. (S/NF) US-Tunisian relations reflect the realities of the Ben Ali regime. On the positive side, we have accomplished several goals in recent years, including:
-- increasing substantially US assistance to the military to combat terrorism; -- improving (albeit still with challenges) some important counterterrorism programs; -- strengthening commercial ties, including holding a TIFA Council meeting, hosting several trade and economic delegations and growing business activity; -- building ties to young people and the cultural community through expanded English-language programs, a new film festival, and new media outreach efforts; and -- encouraging congressional interest in Tunisia.
9. (C) But we have also had too many failures. The GOT frequently declines to engage, and there have been too many lost opportunities. The GOT has:
-- declined to engage on the Millennium Challenge Account; -- declined USAID regional programs to assist young people; -- reduced the number of Fulbright scholarship students; and, -- declined to engage in Open Skies negotiations.
Most troubling has been the GOT's unilateral and clumsy effort to impose new and retroactive taxes on the American Cooperative School of Tunis. There is little doubt that this action was at the behest of powerful friends (probably including Leila Trabelsi) of the International School of Carthage. It raises important questions about Tunisian governance and our friendship. If, in the end, the GOT's actions force the school to close we will need to downsize the Mission, limit our programs, and dial down our relations.
10. (C) At the same time, the GOT has also increasingly tightened controls that make it exceptionally difficult for the US Mission to conduct business. The controls, put in place by Foreign Minister Abdallah, require the Mission to obtain written MFA permission for contact with all official and semi-official Tunisian organizations. Mid-level GOT officials are no longer allowed to communicate with embassy personnel without express authorization and MFA-cleared instructions. All meeting requests and demarches must be conveyed by diplomatic note. Most go unanswered. All Embassies in Tunis are affected by these controls, but they are no less frustrating for that.
11. (C) Beyond the stifling bureaucratic controls, the GOT makes it difficult for the Mission to maintain contact with a
TUNIS 00000492 003 OF 005
wide swath of Tunisian society. GOT-controlled newspapers often attack Tunisian civil society activists who participate in Embassy activities, portraying them as traitors. Plain-clothes police sometimes lurk outside events hosted by EmbOffs, intimidating participants. XXXXXXXXXXXX
12. (C) Some of the GOT's actions may be related to its intense dislike of the former Administration's &freedom agenda.8 The GOT considered this policy dangerous and believed it opened the door for Islamic extremists to seize power. GOT leaders have made no secret of their disapproval of the Ambassador's and other EmbOffs' contacts with opposition XXXXXXXXXXXX leaders as well as civil society activists who criticize the regime. They were intensely critical, as well, of the previous Administration's use of public statements (such as on World Press Freedom Day 2008), which they believed unfairly targeted Tunisia.
So, What Should We Do?
13. (C) Notwithstanding the frustrations of doing business here, we cannot write off Tunisia. We have too much at stake. We have an interest in preventing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups from establishing a foothold here. We have an interest in keeping the Tunisian military professional and neutral. We also have an interest in fostering greater political openness and respect for human rights. It is in our interest, too, to build prosperity and Tunisia's middle class, the underpinning for the country's long-term stability. Moreover, we need to increase mutual understanding to help repair the image of the United States and secure greater cooperation on our many regional challenges. The United States needs help in this region to promote our values and policies. Tunisia is one place where, in time, we might find it.
The Extended Hand
14. (C) Since President Obama's inauguration, Tunisians have been more receptive to the United States. Senior GOT officials have warmly welcomed President Obama's statements and speeches. His address in Cairo drew particular praise, with the Foreign Minister calling it &courageous.8 Meanwhile, some civil society contacts who had been boycotting Embassy functions in opposition to the war in Iraq have started coming around again. Generally, the metaphor of the &extended hand8 in President Obama's inaugural address has resonated powerfully with Tunisians. Concretely, the Tunisians have welcomed many of the Obama Administration's actions, including the decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and the plans for troop withdrawals from Iraq. Above all, Tunisians have been pleased by the President's tone, statements and actions (so far) on Middle East peace.
How To Advance Democracy and Human Rights
15. (S) The Obama Administration creates an important opportunity, then, to explore whether and how to pursue a more productive bilateral relationship. GOT officials say the United States tends to focus on issues where we do not see eye-to-eye. They bristle at our calls for greater democratic reform and respect for human rights, and protest they are making progress. For years, the Embassy's top goal has been to promote progress in these areas. We need to keep the focus, especially with 2009 an election year in Tunisia. Ben Ali is certain to be reelected by a wide margin in a process that will be neither free nor fair. In this context, we should continue to underscore the importance of these issues, and to maintain contacts with the few opposition parties and civil society groups critical of the regime.
16. (C) We should consider how this policy objective is publicly manifested, however. For several years, the United States has been out in front -- publicly and privately -- criticizing the GOT for the absence of democracy and the lack of respect for human rights. There is a place for such
TUNIS 00000492 004 OF 005
criticism, and we do not advocate abandoning it. We do recommend a more pragmatic approach, however, whereby we would speak to the Tunisians very clearly and at a very high level about our concerns regarding Tunisia's democracy and human rights practices, but dial back the public criticism. The key element is more and frequent high-level private candor. We recommend being explicit with GOT leaders that we are changing our approach, while also making clear that we will continue to engage privately with opposition parties and civil society.
17. (C) In addition, we should increase our efforts to persuade our European partners, and other like-minded countries, to step up their efforts to persuade the GOT to accelerate political reform. While some in the EU (e.g., Germany, the UK) agree with us, key countries such as France and Italy have shied from putting pressure on the GOT. We should work to get them to do so, and to condition further assistance and advanced EU associate status on it.
Advancing Other US Interests
18. (C) Whether we succeed on democracy and human rights, the United States has an interest in building relations with a wide spectrum of Tunisians, particularly the young. To do so, and to build good will with the GOT, we should offer the government a dialogue on a range of issues of mutual interest, backed up by increased assistance. Of greatest interest to the GOT would be increased engagement on economic issues, i.e., on increasing bilateral trade and investment, as well as the provision of technical assistance, especially involving technology transfer. The Tunisians would welcome a revival of the US-North African Economic Partnership, as well as other efforts that would promote North African economic integration.
19. (C) In addition, we should offer serious engagement in high-priority areas for Tunisians that will also benefit the United States, including:
-- more, and more comprehensive, English-language programs; -- Ph.D. scholarships for Tunisian students to study in the United States, such as those that USAID used to make available in the 1970's and 1980's; -- more support for University linkages; -- more science and technology exchanges -- to give substance to a bilateral S&T agreement that, with no money behind it, has had little impact; and -- more cultural programming.
20. (C) In addition to talking to the GOT, we need to engage directly with the Tunisian people, especially youth. The Embassy is already using Facebook as a communication tool. In addition, we have the Ambassador's blog, a relatively new undertaking that is attracting attention. Over the past couple of years, the Embassy has substantially increased its outreach to Tunisian youth through concerts, film festivals, and other events. Our information resource center and America's Corners are popular ways for Tunisians to access unfiltered news and information. We should continue and increase such programs.
Advancing Broader Foreign Policy Objectives And Security Cooperation
21. (C) We should also seek new ways to engage Tunisia in pursuit of our broader foreign policy agenda. We believe that the GOT would welcome this kind of engagement, and that it would pay dividends, not only in our bilateral relationship but also on transnational issues. For example, we continue to count on GOT support for our efforts to promote Israel-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace. Although Tunisia has limited influence within the Arab League, it remains in the moderate camp, as demonstrated most recently by its refusal to participate in the extraordinary Doha Summit on the situation in Gaza. At appropriate moments, we would recommend doing more to brief the GOT on our efforts in the peace process and to draw them into providing additional support. Special Envoy Mitchell's stop here in April was well received and we should look for ways to continue such consultations.
22. (S/NF) There are opportunities in the area of security cooperation, too. For starters, we know that Tunisia could be doing a better job in sharing intelligence with us about
TUNIS 00000492 005 OF 005
the threat of terrorism in North Africa. This was all too clear when, yet again, the GOT failed recently to share information with us in a timely fashion on a reported plot against US military personnel. GRPO has been taking steps to increase cooperation through liaison channels; while there has been progress, more is possible.
23. (C) On military cooperation, the time has come to shift our military assistance away from FMF to more targeted programs that meet specific needs. There is increasing evidence the Tunisian military does not need FMF to the degree it claims, and in any event it has bought us too little in the way of cooperation. Rather, we should focus on working with the Tunisians to identify a small number of areas were cooperation makes sense. The recent use of the Section 1206 and PKO programs to provide the Tunisian military with ground surveillance radar and unmanned surveillance aircraft is a good example.
Our Message: Deeper Cooperation Depends On Real Engagement
24. (S) Tunisia is not an ally today, but we still share important history and values. It is fair to consider Tunisia a friend, albeit cautious, closed and distant. Most importantly, in a region in turmoil, Tunisia has better prospects than most even though it is troubled. In the end, serious change here will have to await Ben Ali's departure. But President Obama's new tone and policies may create a window of opportunity. We should use it to make overtures to the GOT in areas where they seek our involvement or assistance. And, we should seek to engage all Tunisians (especially the young) in ways that will improve the future for both our countries.
25. (S) To succeed, however, we need resources and commitment from Washington. New and expanded programs will require money and staff to implement them, particularly in public affairs. Senior US Government officials must also be prepared to visit more often than in recent years to engage the Tunisians. Meetings outside Tunisia are a good tool, too. The Secretary's recent meeting with North African Foreign Ministers on the margins of the Gaza Reconstruction Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh provides one model for engagement and offers the added benefit of allowing us to also promote greater Maghreb integration.
26. (S) Finally, we recommend US officials be clear in all meetings with Tunisians: more US cooperation depends on real Tunisian engagement. For too long Tunisia has skated by. A small country, in a tough region, the GOT relies on vague promises of friendship and empty slogans. More can and should be expected of Tunisia. The GOT frequently says it is a US ally and calls for greater US engagement. We should respond clearly: yes, but only if we get genuine help from Tunisia on the challenges that matter to us all. The Tunisian government loves the illusion of engagement. The US government should press for the hard work of real cooperation.