Former US ambassador to Tunisia Robert Godec's ominous warnings in a confidential embassy cable
about his nation's North African ally in 2008 and 2009 have an
additional political juiciness when read against the backdrop of
unfolding events in the country.
"Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems," Godec said.
And in another extract, "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 behaviour.
"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."
Despite these warnings from the
ambassador, it was never intimated that the United States would take any
action against the government, not even reducing the lucrative business
relationship enjoyed by the two nations.
Choosing its words carefully
Now, as the country bubbles with
political fervour after that chain of events that organically emerged
from the youth, although choosing its words carefully, the superpower
has backed the protesters.
"The people of Tunisia have spoken," said state department official PJ Crowley. Endorsing the movement that toppled Zein El Abidine Ben Ali, Crowley said the US hopes
for "a genuine transition to democracy" - of course strongly implying
that there never was democracy there in the first place.
It is worth rewinding and
noting some choice words that former US secretary of state Colin Powell
had to say about the country when he visited in December 2003.
"Our bilateral relationship is
very, very strong," said Powell. "We are great admirers of Tunisia and
the progress that has been achieved under president Ben Ali's
Just says before his trip, Human Rights Watch had urged Powell in a press release to pressure the country on human rights violations.
And it was only a few months earlier, in February of that year, that he gave his famous presentation to the UN, about the rationale to invade Iraq.
After his stirring performance listing the conclusive proof of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, and his unquestionable ties to al-Qaeda, Powell completed the slam dunk by moving towards the conclusion of his speech with this, "My
friends, this has been a long and a detailed presentation, and I thank
you for your patience. But there is one more subject that I would like
to touch on briefly, and it should be a subject of deep and continuing
concern to this council: Saddam Hussein's violations of human rights."
A visit to Tunisia by defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in February 2006 proves even more revealing:
"We have a very long relationship with Tunisia," Rumsfeld remarked after the meetings.
"Tunisia is a moderate Muslim
nation that has been and is today providing very constructive leadership
in the world. The struggle that's taking place within that faith is a
serious one, an important one. There's a very small number of violent
extremists on the one side against a broad, overwhelming majority of
people who are moderate." And
with regards those within the government's ruling elite that US
officials called "The Family" in one of the WikiLeaks, who it was said
are above the law in the country, Rumsfeld had a glowing reference,
"They have demonstrated, if one looks at this successful country...the
ability to create an environment that's hospitable to investment, to
enterprise, and to opportunity for their people." Hardly sounds like the
type of country whose people's economic desperation would lead to
He spoke of a "very constructive military and diplomatic co-operation" between the two nations.
"Both of our countries have been
attacked by violent extremists, so we know well the stakes involved in
the struggle that's being waged.
"Tunisia has long been an
important voice of moderation and tolerance in this region, and has
played a key role in confronting extremists not just within this
country, but in the area as well."
The Associated Press news agency quoted Rumsfeld as saying Tunisia was a "democracy", but that it was moving "at different paces" on the social, economic and political levels.
All three moving at such a rapid
pace now, that the geo-political trade-offs, where stability trumps
democracy, despite preaching the sanctity of the latter and the policy
of aligning with the best worst guys around because of the national interest, no matter how they treat their own people whose freedom you claim to champion, may be up for reassessment.
What happened to that nice democratic country that Rumsfeld and Powell told us about?