id: 248981
date: 2/16/2010 14:09
refid: 10TUNIS113
origin: Embassy Tunis
classification: CONFIDENTIAL
destination: 10TUNIS66

DE RUEHTU #0113/01 0471409
P 161409Z FEB 10

C O N F I D E N T I A L TUNIS 000113


E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/28/2020


Classified by Ambassador Gordon Gray for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (C) Summary: Saida Chtoui, one of two de facto deputy ministers in Tunisia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told visiting DAS Sanderson on January 26 that the U.S. and Tunisia "have a lot of work to do together," that Tunisia's new Foreign Minister is "open minded," and that Tunisia wants to "build stronger political relations" with the U.S. Chtoui maintained that Tunisia was striving to find the right balance among security, development, and democratic process, and insisted Tunisia deserved more credit for its social achievements. Responding to DAS Sanderson's expression of concern about human rights and a recent crackdown against independent journalism, Chtoui dismissed dissident journalists as poseurs and profiteers and complained, relatively mildly, about Tunisia's mention in the Secretary's January 21 speech on Internet freedom. This prompted a spirited exchange on freedom of expression, in which Chtoui linked moves in the U.S. to ban Al-Manar TV to Tunisia's censorship of "dangerous" websites. The Ambassador openly wondered what threat was posed by sites such as Freedom House. At the close of what remained throughout a friendly discussion, Chtoui pledged Tunisia's full support for U.S. efforts to revive Middle East peace talks (reftel). End summary.

2. (C) DAS Sanderson met for one hour on January 26 with Saida Chtoui, the veteran Tunisian diplomat now serving as Secretary of State for Asia and the Americas (Deputy Minister equivalent) at the conclusion of her January 25-27 visit to Tunis. Chtoui rolled out a rhetorical red carpet for her guest, opening the meeting with the declaration that Tunisia seeks "stronger political ties" and would like to "open a new page" with the U.S. Indicating Tunisia would welcome more high level USG visits, Chtoui asked about "her friend" Assistant Secretary Feltman, and noted that President Ben Ali holds Under Secretary Burns in very high regard and "really enjoys talking with him.... Our new Foreign Minister is very open minded," Chtoui continued, "...there is much work we can do together. We feel positive change with the arrival of the new U.S. Ambassador. Things are changing and moving forward."

--------------------------------------------- --

Sanderson: Need for Candid, Substantive Dialogue

--------------------------------------------- --

3. (C) Welcoming the positive tone of Chtoui's opening remarks, DAS Sanderson observed that, as longtime friends, the U.S. and Tunisia should not hesitate to speak frankly about differences of opinion, which are normal in any relationship. "There are no taboos," Chtoui replied; we are ready to work together. DAS Sanderson said the U.S. was concerned about human rights in Tunisia, and particularly recent actions against independent journalists that raised doubts about the freedom of the press. We would also like to discuss the issue of trafficking in persons, and we are hoping the GOT will follow though on its committment to arrange a meeting for the Embassy with the designated point of contact in the Ministry of Justice, DAS Sanderson added.

4. (C) Reprising a familiar theme, Chtoui said the GOT had two years ago made a great effort to provide the U.S. with a comprehensive dossier of information about the Tunisia's legal framework and protections concerning TIP, but that none of this was factored into the final report. This ommission was demoralizing to the GOT, Chtoui asserted. (Note: In fact, much of the GOT's information on laws that could be used to prosecute human traffickers was incorporated into the Embassy's submission to the Department on TIP. End note.) The GOT was nonetheless willing to take up the subject again with the USG, "provided there is a prospect for change," Chtoui allowed.
5. (C) The USG places a high premium on the accuracy of its reports, DAS Sanderson underlined, and it is for this reason we would like to have candid, substantive dialogue with the GOT - on TIP, and on broader human rights topics. This is an opportunity for the GOT to clarify its views and actions, DAS Sanderson added.


Dissidents as Poseurs

6. (C) "We know we are not perfect," Chtoui responded, but the U.S. should not take all the anti-GOT criticism it hears at face value. She questioned the credentials of Taoufik Ben Brik (a journalist jailed in November) and activist Sihem Bensidrine (a high profile dissident perennially clashing with the GOT), claiming they were much better at posing for international sympathizers than in actually practicing their trades. However well-known and popular they may be abroad, in Tunisia "no one is above the law," Chtoui insisted.

7. (C) The small minority of GOT critics who get so much international attention do not represent the views of most Tunisians, who benefit from living in a country where 80 percent of the citizens are middle class, Chtoui claimed.
Tunisians enjoy a better standard of living than either Algerians or Libyans, even though each country is considerably richer in resources. Tunisia is taking extraordinary steps to generate jobs for its university graduates, even sharing payroll costs with employers in some cases. Poverty rates in Tunisia are more comparable to countries in Europe than to countries in Africa, Chtoui insisted.


Internet Freedom

8. (C) We expect candid discussions with the USG, but demonizing Tunisia is not fair, Chtoui emphasized. There may be room for improvement, but the subject of human rights in Tunisia "is not a disaster." Mentioning Tunisia as one of the worst countries in the world for Internet freedom does not seem fair, Chtoui continued. Tunisia was one of the first countries in either Africa or the Arab world to encourage the growth of Internet use. "Where does the truth really lie?" Chtoui asked rhetorically. Tunisia is situated in the middle of a dangerous region, Chtoui declared, and had a duty to take security precautions. Tunisia is struggling to find the right balance between security, economic development, and democratic freedoms, she asserted.

9. (C) "Finding the right balance is an ongoing, difficult process," DAS Sanderson allowed. "As leaders and citizens, we need to weigh how much we are giving up," as we make security decisions, she added. The U.S. learned, following September 11, that too many controls can be counterproductive, DAS Sanderson observed. If the GOT feels the Secretary's remarks about the Internet were not accurate, we should talk about it, DAS Sanderson underlined, "our concern is that Tunisia's admirable progress in some areas could be undermined by its lack of progress in other areas."
10. (C) Chtoui rejected the notion that freedom of expression does not exist in Tunisia. Several licensed Arabic language newspapers, such as those belonging to the former communist party (Al-Tajdid), receive GOT subsidies, even as they regularly level criticism at the government. At the same time, "we fully understand," Chtoui asserted, U.S. moves to ban the broadcasts of Hezbollah-controlled Al-Manar TV, which it considers incitement. For the same reason, Tunisia needs to take action to block sites that incite hatred and threaten stability, she maintained. "Even in the U.S., freedom of speech is not absolute," the Ambassador interjected, "you can't yell 'fire' in the middle of a crowded movie house.

But it is difficult to see what particular security threat is posed to Tunisia by Freedom House's website. There should be a place for mainstream criticism," the Ambassador underscored.
11. (C) "Freedom House does not have a balanced attitude.

They are very biased and only listen to Tunisia's critics.

They don't listen to those who point out our achievements," Chtoui replied. "I hate Al-Jazeera (whose site is also blocked in Tunisia). They just destroy people day and night in a hateful dialogue, if we can call it dialogue." The Ambassador said the USG distinguishes between Al-Jazeera, which is often biased, and Al-Manar, which is the arm of a terrorist group. There is a difference between journalistic bias and incitement to violence, the Ambassador stressed.

12. (C) Wrapping up the conversation, DAS Sanderson and the Ambassdor emphasized that the U.S. would like to engage in a sustained, practical, non-adversarial dialogue with Tunisia, and would like to move forward various items on the bilateral agenda, including a resumption of TIFA talks and the conclusion of an open skies agreement. Chtoui said the GOT welcomed these efforts, adding "you can rely on my personal support."

13. (U) This message was cleared by DAS Sanderson.


=======================CABLE ENDS===========================

ID: 06TUNIS55 

Created: 2006-01-09 15:03

Classification: SECRET

Origin: Embassy Tunis
S E C R E T TUNIS 000055





REF: A. 05 TUNIS 2265 B. 05 TUNIS 2148


1. (S) SUMMARY: In a country that has had only one president for over eighteen years, suddenly and unusually, talk of the post-Ben Ali era is growing. Several senior and well-connected individuals have recently raised Ben Ali’s intentions for the future with Ambassador and other embassy officials. On the heels of Ben Ali’s recent illness (Ref A) and a new law providing for “former presidents” (Ref B), these discussions seem, on the surface, to be more relevant that the usual rumors. While we have no evidence that Ben Ali’s cancer has reached the life-threatening stage or that he is actively contemplating his retirement, there are some interesting scenarios being discussed, including the possibility that Ben Ali may groom a successor to run in the next presidential elections. Given the constitutional framework and the political scene, a successful candidate will likely come from the RCD Politburo.  None of the options suggest Tunisia will become more democratic, but the US-Tunisian bilateral relationship is likely to remain unaffected by the departure of Ben Ali. END SUMMARY.

2. (S) One of the standard jokes about President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (usually delivered only half in jest) is that he has three goals for his presidency: to stay in power; to stay in power; and to stay in power. Ample evidence supports this view, including a 2002 constitutional amendment that he and the ruling RCD (Democratic Constitutional Rally) party pushed through which eliminated the two-term limit and effectively gave him the right to govern at least until 2014.  In recent months, however, increasingly concrete speculation has been voiced by well-placed contacts (and more casual observers) that Ben Ali does not plan to run again and may even step down before his term expires in 2009.

3. (S) A Cabinet-level GOT official XXXXXXXXXXXX recently told the Ambassador XXXXXXXXXXXX that Ben Ali wants to avoid the “difficulties” that arose when Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, declined in 1987. At the time, Ben Ali argued that Bourguiba was medically unfit to continue as president, while denouncing Bourguiba’s de facto presidency for life. One way for Ben Ali to ensure a smoother transition would be to groom a replacement and present him as the only viable candidate in 2009. XXXXXXXXXXXX later told the Ambassador that, in fact, Ben Ali does not intend to run again in the 2009 presidential elections. This scenario, while hard to imagine for many who have witnessed first hand Ben Ali’s jealous control of all power in Tunisia, would allow the President to bask in the glory of being the first Arab leader to voluntarily and peacefully leave office.

4. (C) Average Tunisians spend more time commenting on Ben Ali’s health and omnipotent rule than the possibility that he may step down. Ben Ali, who has been rumored to have prostate cancer since early 2003, maintains an active schedule and appears healthy; but Tunisians often discuss whether he appears pale, thin or otherwise physically ill. While some people may state their hope that U.S. and European pressure could force Ben Ali to become more democratic or relinquish the presidency, they are at a loss when asked who would succeed him. Ben Ali’s policy of regularly changing ministers and other senior officials has ensured that no individual has widespread support, respect, or even substantial recognition among Tunisians.


5. (C) The significant constitutional changes approved in a May 2002 referendum that allow presidential candidates up to the age of seventy-five led many Tunisians to assume that Ben Ali intends to remain president for life. In Ben Ali’s case, the changes allow him to run in 2009 and serve as president until the 2014 elections, when, at age 79, he will be legally too old to run for reelection. However, many Tunisians still cynically expect Ben Ali to change the constitution again to allow him to continue to serve as president until his ultimate demise.

6. (C) The constitutional amendments of 2002 also outlined legal procedures that address presidential illness, incapacity and death. According to the constitution, in the event of a temporary incapacity, the President can delegate some of his powers to the Prime Minister. During this interim period, the PM/acting president cannot dissolve the National Assembly, nor can he make changes to the Cabinet. (Note: During Ben Ali’s four-day October illness, he did not elect to delegate any authorities. End Note.) This system replaces the previous constitutional provisions, which Ben Ali used to remove Bourguiba, in which the Prime Minister was responsible for determining the president’s incapacity based on from seven doctors’ certifications that the president was no longer competent to carry out the functions of his office.

7. (C) In the event the President dies in office, resigns or is unable to carry out his duties due to illness or other incapacity, the Constitutional Council would meet to determine if the vacancy of the office was “definitive.” (Note: The nine-member Constitutional Council, which was created in 2001 as part of the above-mentioned constitutional revisions, is generally responsible for reviewing new laws to ensure conformity with the constitution. Four members are appointed by the President, three by the President of the Chamber of Deputies, and three are members based on their government positions: the first president of the Supreme Court, the president of the Administrative Tribunal, and the President of the National Accounting Office.) An absolute majority of the Council would be required to render the presidency vacant. The Council must then advise the presidents of the Chamber of Deputies and the Chamber of Counselors, of this determination, which triggers the “immediate” but temporary investiture of the president of the Chamber of Deputies as interim president. The interim president must organize elections within 60 days, and cannot dissolve the Chamber, change the constitution, change the government, nor stand for election to the Presidency.

8. (C) Thus, under the current constitutional dispensation, if Ben Ali were to be “temporarily” incapacitated due to illness, he could turn over a measure of presidential authority to Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi. Ghannouchi, an economist by training, is a respected figure in the “technocratic” mold. If Ben Ali were to die in office, resign for whatever reason, or become so ill he could no longer exercise his functions, the Constitutional Council could declare the Presidency “vacant” and interim authority would fall to Fouad Mebazaa, the current President of the National Assembly. Mebazaa is a long-time ruling RCD party stalwart (a member of the RCD Politburo, a former Minister, and a “survivor” from the Bourguiba era), whose principal task as interim President would be to organize elections and, from an RCD perspective, maintain the party’s hold on power.


9. (C) In order to be eligible to run for the presidency, a candidate must be no older than 75, be a member of a party with at least one member in parliament, and obtain the signatures of 30 deputies and/or mayors. Given the personality-cult status of the opposition parties (several of which are internally fragmented and weak) and their lack of organized platforms or significant membership, it is unlikely any opposition candidate would garner enough strength to seriously challenge an RCD member. It is most likely that the next president would come from within the RCD given its history as Tunisia’s founding party, its grass roots structure, and its interest in stability and continuity.


10. (S) Designating a successor may be the only means for Ben Ali to maintain his legacy as the man who brought “blessed change” to Tunisia. However, as he is an expert at shuffling his advisors and cabinet members to prevent any one individual from gaining sufficient political support to become a threat to the President’s rule, it is unclear who  this successor might be. Given the legal framework of the presidency, it is expected that the successor would come from the RCD Politburo -- whether handpicked by Ben Ali or following his death. Possible candidates, whose bio info is provided below, include Minister of State, Special Advisor to the President and Official Spokesman Abdelaziz Ben Dhia, Minister of Social Affairs, Solidarity and Tunisians Abroad Ali Chaouch, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, Minister of Defense Kamel Morjane and First Lady Leila Ben Ali. None of these individuals would likely make any significant changes in GOT domestic or foreign policies, at least initially.
Minister of State Ben Dhia: Ben Dhia is often mentioned as a possible successor, given his strong position in the palace. Since he was born in 1936, Ben Dhia’s age is the prime obstacle to the likelihood he would be Ben Ali’s successor, as he also would be ineligible to run in the 2014 elections. However, rumored to be equally liked by the President and First Lady, Ben Dhia could act as a placeholder while a younger family member, such as one of Ben Ali’s son-in-laws, gained political power. Ben Dhia’s long history of government service, including under Bourguiba, may give him widespread public support, although his relatively secretive responsibilities in the palace cause some consternation among average Tunisians.  These same unknown responsibilities have also supported Ben Dhia’s reputation in Tunisia as an “eminence grise” - the brilliant behind-the-scenes decision maker in the palace.
Minister of Social Affairs Chaouch: Ali Chaouch (born in 1948) has held two positions that have given him great exposure to the Tunisian public: as RCD Secretary General from 2000-04, and currently as the Minister of Social Affairs. However, he also occupied the despised position of Minister of Interior, which while it may have given him the background to run a dictatorship, earned him little popularity with the Tunisian public.
Prime Minister Ghannouchi: (8/18/1941) A career technocrat and trained economist, Ghannouchi has served as Prime Minister since 1999. Ghannouchi is rumored to have told many that he wishes to leave the GOT but has not had the opportunity. The length of his service as PM also suggests that Ben Ali does not view him as a threat and that he is unlikely to be viewed as a qualified successor. However, average Tunisians generally view him with respect and he is well-liked in comparison to other GOT and RCD officials.
First Lady Ben Ali: (10/24/1956) While there are often rumors of Leila’s political ambitions, almost all observers note she does not have sufficient support among the Tunisian public. However, she cannot be ruled out as a possible successor, especially as she is widely believed to be at least partially responsible for many official appointments. If this is true, she has a wide range of political allies throughout Tunisian society that would support her -- even in the face of public disapproval.
Minister of Defense Morjane: (5/9/1945) Also affecting the credibility of succession scenarios is an oft-repeated notion that the US is favoring Morjane in the succession race. Morjane, appointed Minister of Defense in August 2005 after years of United Nations service, at one point had USG support for his candidacy to be the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and has been helpful as Minister. However, we know little about his personal politics or ambitions.

11. (S) COMMENT. Given the fact that Ben Ali has a dictatorial hold on Tunisia, it is hard to believe that he will voluntarily step down. We wonder that these discussions are not simply a ruse that will bring Tunisians - supporters and critics alike - out in force calling for another Ben Ali term. This would give Ben Ali the necessary cover that he is only responding to public demand for the continuation of his presidency, much as he did following the 2002 referendum that amended the constitution to allow him to run until 2014. However it is interpreted, the mere fact that an increasing number of Tunisians are talking about succession and the end of the Ben Ali era is remarkable. HUDSON

ID:    212425
Date:    2009-06-16 18:45:00
Origin:    09TUNIS372
Source:    Embassy Tunis
Classification:    CONFIDENTIAL//NOFORN
Dunno:    07TUNIS1489
Destination:    VZCZCXRO0893
DE RUEHTU #0372/01 1671845
P 161845Z JUN 09 ZDK

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 TUNIS 000372



E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/16/2019

REF: 07 TUNIS 1489

TUNIS 00000372 001.2 OF 003

Classified By: Ambassador Robert F. Godec for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)


1. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX approached Ambassador and Pol/EconCouns XXXXXXXXXXXX to share with us XXXXXXXXXXXX the Ambassador gave him assurances that we would.

XXXXXXXXXXXX shared a rare first-hand account of corruption from several years ago in which Ben Ali himself was described as asking for a 50 percent stake in XXXXXXXXXXXX private university. XXXXXXXXXXXX
--------------------------------------------- ---------
XXXXXXXXXXXX The Day I Realized Tunisia is No Longer a Free Country
--------------------------------------------- ---------

2. (C) On the margins of a networking event for aspiring and successful social entrepreneurs XXXXXXXXXXXX The book is extremely critical of the Ben Ali regime for, among other things, the "duality" between official discourse and the reality on the ground. Specifically XXXXXXXXXXXX points to the "stifling" of political liberties and "omnipotent" controls on the media. He also charges that freedom of association is "illusory" and assesses that "the rule of law is more fiction than reality." XXXXXXXXXXXX


3. XXXXXXXXXXXX asked that the US Embassy follow his case XXXXXXXXXXXX;

the Ambassador assured him that we would do so. Pol/EconCouns reviewed XXXXXXXXXXXX some of the accounts of life in prison that we have heard from released political prisoners; XXXXXXXXXXXX.

Tale of Corruption I: The French Connection?

4. (C/NF) Asked whether he had also been in touch with other western embassies, XXXXXXXXXXXX said that he had not. He had avoided reaching out to the French, in particular, arguing that Ambassador Degallaix is seen as Ben Ali's Ambassador to French President Sarkozy, not vice versa. In addition, XXXXXXXXXXXX alleged that the GOT has improperly given Ambassador Degallaix a villa, which is registered in his daughter's name, on rue Sidi Dhrif, near the President's own residence. He did not offer any evidence of this alleged corruption or explain how this knowledge came to him.


Tale of Corruption II: Ben Ali Seeks 50 Percent Stake XXXXXXXXXXXX

5. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX likened corruption to a dangerous cancer that is spreading in Tunisia, spurred on by the corrupt practices of President Ben Ali and his extended family. When Pol/EconCouns responded by noting that most tales of corruption that we hear concern "The Family" rather than the President himself, XXXXXXXXXXXX recounted an incident in which Ben Ali himself was involved. XXXXXXXXXXXX Ben Ali came off as "very uneducated" in the meeting, failing to grasp some of the key points XXXXXXXXXXXX about the virtues XXXXXXXXXXXX Ben Ali abruptly told him that he wanted a 50-50 stake in the enterprise. Fearful of responding in the negative, XXXXXXXXXXXX said he "played dumb," pretending not to understand the President's proposition.

Other Run-ins with "The Family"

6. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX also reviewed the difficulties that lead to the closure XXXXXXXXXXXX

How Suha Arafat Got Into Trouble

7. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX also offered a theory as to what was behind the GOT's decision to revoke Suha Arafat's Tunisian citizenship in 2007. (Note: Reftel also reports on this incident.) He said that he had heard that Leila Ben Ali at that time had been scheming to marry off an 18 year-old niece (NFI) to UAE Prime Minister and Dubai Ruler Sheik Mohamed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, one of whose wives is the half-sister of the King of Jordan. According to this rumor, Suha Arafat warned Jordanian Queen Rania about Leila Ben Ali's plans.

Word of Arafat's intervention got back to the Tunisian First Lady, who turned against Arafat and soon forced her out of Tunisia.




9. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX is extremely well respected and considered an upstanding member of the community. While we might doubt the veracity of some of the rumors that he shared with us, we have no reason to doubt his account of his conversation with President Ben Ali, in which he described the President as seeking a 50 percent stake in his private university. We routinely hear allegations of corruption, and such allegations are inherently difficult to prove. But XXXXXXXXXXXX anecdote strikes us as credible. It is also significant in that it implicates Ben Ali himself, while so many other reported incidents of corruption involve his extended family.


Please visit Embassy Tunis' Classified Website at: fm

ID:    130475
Date:    2007-11-16 17:13:00
Origin:    07TUNIS1489
Source:    Embassy Tunis
Classification:    CONFIDENTIAL//NOFORN
Dunno:    06TUNIS2570
Destination:    VZCZCXRO8599
DE RUEHTU #1489/01 3201713
P 161713Z NOV 07

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 TUNIS 001489




E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/15/2017

REF: A. IIR 6 897 0136 07 (NOTALS)
B. 06 TUNIS 2570

Classified By: Ambassador Robert F. Godec for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

1. (C/NF) Summary: The GOT's decision last summer to revoke Suha Arafat's Tunisian citizenship, which had only been granted less than a year earlier, made international headlines. Since the appearance of the official register notice on August 7, the chattering class in Tunisia has not ceased to speculate about the reasons behind the decision.

In a mid-October telcon with Ambassador Godec, Mrs. Arafat attributed her ouster to the personal animus of First Lady Leila Ben Ali, following a dispute over the forced closure of the Bouebdelli School, a well-respected private school. Had it remained open, the Bouebdelli School would have represented serious competition to the new Carthage International School, a joint venture between the two First Ladies. It is doubtful that we will ever know all of the facts in this affair, but the stories of corruption swirling around the Carthage International School have a ring of truth to them. Meanwhile, Mrs. Arafat was not shy in sharing with the Ambassador stinging criticism of President Ben Ali, the First Lady, and the web of corruption that she says surrounds them. End Summary.

Easy Come, Easy Go

2. (C) On August 7, the GOT's Official Journal contained a one-sentence announcement of decree number 2007-1976 of August 2, 2007, revoking the citizenship of Suha Arafat, wife of the late Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat.

As reported Ref B, the GOT had only granted Tunisian nationality, by naturalization, to Mrs. Arafat and her 12 year-old daughter Zahwa in September, 2006. (Note: The GOT did not revoke the citizenship of Mrs. Arafat's daughter.

End Note.) The GOT's decision to revoke the citizenship of Mrs. Arafat came without warning. In an early July telcon with the Ambassador, Mrs. Arafat gave no indication that anything was amiss. Indeed, she indicated that she would like to meet with the Ambassador when she returned from her vacation in Malta later in the summer. Nor were there any distress signals in Ref A conversation with Mrs. Arafat, which also took place in early summer.

3. (C/NF) In a mid-October telcon with the Ambassador, Ms.

Arafat blamed her ouster on the personal animus of First Lady Leila Ben Ali. "I can't believe what she's has done to me," Arafat exclaimed, "I've lost everything!" She charged that all of her properties in Tunisia had been confiscated, even by falsifying documents transferring ownership. (Note: It is rumored that Mrs. Arafat had invested -- and lost -- some 2.5 million euros in the Carthage International School. End Note.) In addition, she said, her friends and colleagues in Tunisia, including her banker, had also come under pressure.

"Anyone who supports me is punished."

But, Why?: The School Theory, Version I

4. (C/NF) Mrs. Arafat attributed her ouster to her falling out with First Lady Leila Ben Ali over the Carthage International School, a new, private, for-profit school, of which they had been co-owners. According to Mrs. Arafat's version of events, the dispute stemmed from Leila Ben Ali's decision to force the closure of the Bouebdelli school (also known as by the name of its parent group, Le Fondation Louis Pasteur), a highly respected private school, from which many of Tunisia's elite have graduated. (Note: The Bouebdelli school was notified in mid-May that the Minister of Education had ordered it to close, ostensibly for failure to comply with registration regulations. Public outcry ensued, fueled in part by a petition and letter-writing campaign organized by parents of Bouebdelli schoolchildren. Many local and international media reports criticized the decision to close the school as a flagrant attempt to stifle potential competition of the International School of Carthage. The fact that parents of Bouebdelli schoolchildren were encouraged to enroll their children at the Carthage school only served to fuel these charges, as did the August 29 Presidential decree in which President Ben Ali granted 1,794,600 Tunisian Dinars (approximately US $ 1.5 million) to the Carthage School, an estimated 25 percent of its operating budget.)

5. (C/NF) Mrs. Arafat asserted that Leila Ben Ali had overreached in the decision to force the Bouebdelli School to close. She claimed that she had tried to convince the Tunisian First Lady that "what we are doing is unethical," and that competition ultimately would be healthy for the new school. Their arguments over this issue continued to escalate, according to Mrs. Arafat, culminating in the decision to revoke her citizenship while she was on vacation in Malta. Mrs. Arafat told the Ambassador that she intends to remain in Malta, where her brother serves as Palestinian Ambassador, but that she hopes to spend Christmas in the Palestinian Territories.

But Why?: Version II of the School Theory

6. (C/NF) Other rumors have circulated with a different spin on the school story. According to this theory, it was Mrs.

Arafat who overreached, not Leila Ben Ali. Specifically, it is said that Mrs. Arafat convinced the Ministry of Education to force the closure of the Bouebdelli School. She reportedly did so by invoking the name of Mrs. Ben Ali.

Critically, though, according to this theory, Leila Ben Ali was not aware that her name was being invoked. Thus, the Tunisian First Lady was incensed when she learned about the school's closure -- and her alleged role in that decision -in the highly critical pieces in the local and international media. (Comment: The fact that the Bouebdelli School did not reopen, even after the revocation of Suha Arafat's citizenship, would seem to cast doubt on the accuracy of this theory. End Comment.)

But Why?: An Array of Other Theories

7. (C/NF) Plenty of other theories have stoked the rumor mill in the Suha Arafat affair. One well-connected Palestinian resident in Tunisia told EmbOff that what sealed Mrs.

Arafat's fate was that on a recent visit to Tripoli, she had asked Libyan Leader Qaddafi for money. Qaddafi had readily provided a hand-out, but he reportedly subsequently called President Ben Ali to chastise him for failing to provide adequately for the widow of the late Palestinian President.

Ben Ali's acute embarrassment, so the story goes, quickly turned to wrath. It was not long before Mrs. Arafat's citizenship was revoked. Another theory holds that Suha Arafat was ousted because she had absconded with a significant amount of the first family's assets. Finally, in the face of persistent rumors that Mrs. Arafat had secretly married Belhassen Trabelsi, brother of the Tunisian First Lady, some commentators chalked up the whole ordeal to the failure of that relationship.

Scathing Commentary on the First Family

8. (C/NF) No doubt as a result of her tribulations, Mrs.

Arafat was not shy about sharing with the Ambassador her negative impressions of President Ben Ali, his wife, and her family members, whom, she said, collectively represent a web of corruption. Drawing on her close contact with the first family over the past several years, she made several allegations, among them the following:
-- President Ben Ali remains weakened by his battle with cancer (NFI);
-- President Ben Ali spends all his time playing with his son and following him around the residence;
-- President Ben Ali simply does what his wife asks him to do;
-- Leila Ben Ali and her family are stealing everything of value in the country;
-- Leila Ben Ali believes that she will succeed her husband as President of Tunisia;
-- The members of Ben Ali's extended family can do whatever they want with impunity, including the falsification of documents;
-- Leila Ben Ali dropped the American curriculum that had been planned for the Carthage school because she fundamentally wants nothing to do with Americans.


TUNIS 00001489 003 OF 003


9. (C/NF) It is doubtful that we will ever know all of the facts in the Suha Arafat affair, or, for that matter in the Bouebdelli School/Carthage International School matter.

Clearly, having been stripped of her Tunisian citizenship and deprived of her properties here, Suha Arafat has an ax to grind with the Ben Ali clan, so her allegations must be taken with a big grain of salt. Although difficult to prove, there is a certain ring of truth to the stories of corruption swirling around the school issue. While it is not clear who was behind the Bouebdelli closure, the ready-made pool of students for whom Bouebdelli was no longer an option was certainly convenient for filling the classrooms in the Carthage School's opening year. Indeed, during a mid-September visit to the Carthage School, MgmtCouns learned that the school is filled to capacity. Beyond that, no school in recent memory has been constructed so quickly, had municipally provided access roads, street signs, and traffic lights installed so efficiently, or had such ease in getting certified (although it has not yet received the French accreditation the Bouebdelli School had). Nor is it common practice for the GOT to so generously subsidize a for-profit educational institution. Finally, it must be noted that the school affair, while rather blatant, is not an isolated case of favoritism and corruption. We will continue to follow this issue and report septel on other corruption charges.

End Comment.



ID:    82077
Date:    2006-10-17 06:41:00
Origin:    06TUNIS2570
Source:    Embassy Tunis
Classification:    CONFIDENTIAL
Dunno:    06TUNIS2565
Destination:    VZCZCXYZ0000

DE RUEHTU #2570 2900641
P 170641Z OCT 06

C O N F I D E N T I A L TUNIS 002570




E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/17/2016


Classified By: CDA David Ballard for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (SBU) The Government of Tunisia's Official Journal of September 26 published a notice that Suha Arafat, wife of the late Palestinian Authority president, and her 11-year old daughter Zahwa had acquired Tunisian nationality. Mrs.

Arafat and her daughter have been living in Tunisia since the 2004 death of Yasser Arafat, and Zahwa Arafat attends the American Cooperative School of Tunisia. Suha Arafat's presence in Tunisia long predates that, however. She had been a resident of Tunisia prior to her marriage, and, after residing in the Palestinian Territories from 1996-98, she returned in 1998, alternating between residences in France and Tunisia.

2. (SBU) The above news item has been picked up by various media outlets, including Reuters. Other recent wire reports on Mrs. Arafat, reporting her alleged marriage to Belhassen Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, are false, however, and Mrs. Arafat has been quite vocal in denying them in the press.

3. (C) Comment: We remain puzzled as to why Mrs. Arafat would want Tunisian citizenship, and why now, since she already enjoyed the privilege of a Tunisian diplomatic passport, and we doubt that she was eager to exercise her right to vote in Tunisia or become a member of the Tunisian National Assembly. The only other tangible benefit of citizenship is that Tunisian law forbids foreigners to own agricultural land -- and Mrs. Arafat is not known to be an aspiring farmer. One possible motivation is that under Tunisian law, foreign participation in a totally non-exporting service industry cannot exceed 50 percent.

Several months ago, Mrs. Arafat set up one such company -- to build an international school in Tunis. Tunisian citizenship will allow her to control this company. As for what was in such a move for the GOT, Post suspects that a continuing desire on the part of the government to market itself as closely tied to the Palestinian people played a role. The GOT probably feels the need for some Palestinian "cover" during this time when newspapers are full of stories on the government's campaign against the hijab (reftel). In addition, Mrs. Arafat is said to be good friends with the First Lady, Leila Ben Ali. End Comment.