Last week two young men committed suicide in the Tunisian town of Sidibouzid. One lit himself on fire in front of the town hall; the other climbed a lamp post and reaching out to a high voltage wire in front of a crowd of hundreds who were protesting the deteriorating social and economic conditions in the country. Prior to that, Nawaat, a Tunisian opposition website, solicited Rob Prince’s perspectives on the consequences of the WikiLeaks Tunisia cables for the US-Tunisia relationship, and how Tunisians can use the leaks to push for a real change. Part 1, edited, follows.

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 that have been critical of U.S. Middle-East and North 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 and 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.…the ambassador would have done better reading Le Monde, Liberation orNawaat 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 no contact or even interest in speaking to people outside of narrow government circles.

And for its part, it appears that the government of Tunisia — GOT — (like many others) is not particularly forthcoming to American authorities, as if to hide as much as possible. In these cables, GOT 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”…i.e., 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 percolating 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.