Immolations Draw Attention to WikiLeaks Tunisia Cables (Part 3)

Part 3 of Nawaat‘s interview (edited) with Rob Prince.

Nawaat: So far the topic of corruption surrounding the (Ben Ali, Trabelsi) family seems visibly dominant in the cables. Do you think we are dealing with institutional corruption that could harm the relationship between Tunisia and the West in general, at least on an economic level?

Prince: As I respond to your question…at the moment in the Tunisian interior, in Sidi Bouzid, there have been four days of protests — what the government of Tunisia calls “riots” or “social unrest”; and now I read that similar protests have begun in Kasserine and elsewhere. The Sidi Bouzid events appears to have been a spontaneous uprising of people in the region over economic and social issues after a poor lad in his early 20s, one Mohammed Bouazizi, poured a can of gasoline on himself and then lit a match in front of the police station there. Tunisian friends relate that this is the third young Tunisian in about six months who chose to protest the grim economic and social prospects in the country by burning themselves to death.

I cannot put into words how sad it makes me to see a photo of Mohammed Bouazizi seeming to be running down the main street of Sidi Bouzid his body nothing more than a ball of fire while [President] Zine Ben Ali parrots old and worn nonsense about non-existent economic miracles and complains that those who criticize his regime’s human rights record are exaggerating.

Then there are more than 50 others, in Tunisia and in Europe, who are on hunger strikes, also protesting both the socio-economic situation in the country as well as the overall repressive atmosphere. And all this comes after what I can only call the “social uprising” in the Gafsa region centered around Redeyef in 2008, which was a “warning shot” to Ben Ali that there are deep, structural economic problems in Tunisia that need addressing.

Other than 200 people tortured and imprisoned, with a fair number of them still in jail, including the journalist Fahem Boukkadous, virtually nothing has happened since to suggest the Tunisian government takes the economic crisis serious: no development plan, a few insipid crumbs of promises of economic aid from Ben Ali’s advisors, that is about it.

Combine such painful news of economic woes with its opposite: that two families — that of the president Zine Ben Ali, and his wife, Leina Trabelsi — are accumulating wealth at a breathtaking pace. Indeed, I read this morning that Ben Ali has squirreled away more than $5 billion in foreign bank accounts and a more sober picture of Tunisia’s so-called “economic miracle” comes into perspective: a precious few are making a fortune at the expense of the multitude whose situation is deteriorating as a generalized impoverishment grows. So, the Philippines has its Marcos family, the Congo Mobutu, Saudi Arabia its royal family, and now we can add to the picture the Ben Ali-Trabelsi family clans of Tunisia! Quite an honor!

The social explosion in Sidi Bouzid reinforces the opinion of those voices in the Tunisian opposition who have argued that Zine Ben Ali’s government is facing a full blown socio-economic and political crisis, one which it is questionable the government can or will survive.

Nawaat: How will the TuniLeaks — the corruption they expose — affect Tunisia’s economic relations with “the West” (the USA, Canada and the European Union)?

Prince: Again, while the WikiLeaks documents are embarrassing — and there’s evidence that the United States embassy is aware of the scope of the corruption — there is not much here that is not known to Tunisians or close “Tunisia watchers.” Certainly the cables verify the word “on the street” and much that has been published online and in the French press. But I think the question should be somewhat rephrased to: if this corruption has gone on for so long and has been so pervasive, why has it taken until now for Europeans and the US ambassador to Tunisia to take note of it?

It appears that, despite all their talk of “transparency,” foreign economic interest can and does tolerate rather substantial rates of corruption in Tunisia without much complaining. At what point has the level of corruption reached such heights that even Tunisia’s Western partners have finally said “enough is enough” and “we need more caution in our economic relations with Tunisia.” Well they haven’t said it yet — but it appears they will rather soon.

And here look at the relationship between the growing economic disparities of the country — which have long existed despite the rosy propaganda, “the economic miracle mirage” – and the reality. It is the intensification of Tunisia’s social crisis which has more and more exposed the level and nature of corruption, and that the U.S. State Department has, at long last, noted all this in the released cables, is of course a positive development, one that reinforces what others have been saying for a long time. The US does so as it begins to perceive threats to its economic and security interests.Part 3 of Nawaat‘s interview (edited) with Rob Prince.

Nawaat: So far the topic of corruption surrounding the (Ben Ali, Trabelsi) family seems visibly dominant in the cables. Do you think we are dealing with institutional corruption that could harm the relationship between Tunisia and the West in general, at least on an economic level?

Prince: As I respond to your question…at the moment in the Tunisian interior, in Sidi Bouzid, there have been four days of protests — what the government of Tunisia calls “riots” or “social unrest”; and now I read that similar protests have begun in Kasserine and elsewhere. The Sidi Bouzid events appears to have been a spontaneous uprising of people in the region over economic and social issues after a poor lad in his early 20s, one Mohammed Bouazizi, poured a can of gasoline on himself and then lit a match in front of the police station there. Tunisian friends relate that this is the third young Tunisian in about six months who chose to protest the grim economic and social prospects in the country by burning themselves to death.

I cannot put into words how sad it makes me to see a photo of Mohammed Bouazizi seeming to be running down the main street of Sidi Bouzid his body nothing more than a ball of fire while [President] Zine Ben Ali parrots old and worn nonsense about non-existent economic miracles and complains that those who criticize his regime’s human rights record are exaggerating.

Then there are more than 50 others, in Tunisia and in Europe, who are on hunger strikes, also protesting both the socio-economic situation in the country as well as the overall repressive atmosphere. And all this comes after what I can only call the “social uprising” in the Gafsa region centered around Redeyef in 2008, which was a “warning shot” to Ben Ali that there are deep, structural economic problems in Tunisia that need addressing.

Other than 200 people tortured and imprisoned, with a fair number of them still in jail, including the journalist Fahem Boukkadous, virtually nothing has happened since to suggest the Tunisian government takes the economic crisis serious: no development plan, a few insipid crumbs of promises of economic aid from Ben Ali’s advisors, that is about it.

Combine such painful news of economic woes with its opposite: that two families — that of the president Zine Ben Ali, and his wife, Leina Trabelsi — are accumulating wealth at a breathtaking pace. Indeed, I read this morning that Ben Ali has squirreled away more than $5 billion in foreign bank accounts and a more sober picture of Tunisia’s so-called “economic miracle” comes into perspective: a precious few are making a fortune at the expense of the multitude whose situation is deteriorating as a generalized impoverishment grows. So, the Philippines has its Marcos family, the Congo Mobutu, Saudi Arabia its royal family, and now we can add to the picture the Ben Ali-Trabelsi family clans of Tunisia! Quite an honor!

The social explosion in Sidi Bouzid reinforces the opinion of those voices in the Tunisian opposition who have argued that Zine Ben Ali’s government is facing a full blown socio-economic and political crisis, one which it is questionable the government can or will survive.

Nawaat: How will the TuniLeaks — the corruption they expose — affect Tunisia’s economic relations with “the West” (the USA, Canada and the European Union)?

Prince: Again, while the WikiLeaks documents are embarrassing — and there’s evidence that the United States embassy is aware of the scope of the corruption — there is not much here that is not known to Tunisians or close “Tunisia watchers.” Certainly the cables verify the word “on the street” and much that has been published online and in the French press. But I think the question should be somewhat rephrased to: if this corruption has gone on for so long and has been so pervasive, why has it taken until now for Europeans and the US ambassador to Tunisia to take note of it?

It appears that, despite all their talk of “transparency,” foreign economic interest can and does tolerate rather substantial rates of corruption in Tunisia without much complaining. At what point has the level of corruption reached such heights that even Tunisia’s Western partners have finally said “enough is enough” and “we need more caution in our economic relations with Tunisia.” Well they haven’t said it yet — but it appears they will rather soon.

And here look at the relationship between the growing economic disparities of the country — which have long existed despite the rosy propaganda, “the economic miracle mirage” – and the reality. It is the intensification of Tunisia’s social crisis which has more and more exposed the level and nature of corruption, and that the U.S. State Department has, at long last, noted all this in the released cables, is of course a positive development, one that reinforces what others have been saying for a long time. The US does so as it begins to perceive threats to its economic and security interests.