As diarists Cartoon Peril, Mutually Assured Destruction, unspeakable and Kandy have all pointed out in excellent diaries, fast-moving protests in Tunisia over the past few weeks have culminated today in the overthrow of Tunisian dictator President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
All believers in democratic self-governance should applaud today's events, and the courage of Tunisian society in shedding the yolk of the one world's most odious kleptocrats. As David Kilpatrick reports for the New York Times today, there is another organization (hint: it's not our State Department) that deserves credit for Ben-Ali's ouster -- Wikileaks.
Well down in Kilpatrick's reporting this afternoon is an important revelation --
But the mounting protests quickly evolved from demands for more jobs to demands for political reforms, focusing mainly on the perceived corruption of the government and the self-enrichment of the ruling family. The protests were accelerated by the heavy use of social-media web sites like Facebook and Twitter by Tunisia’s large cohort of educated young people, who used the Internet to call for demonstrations and to circulate videos of each successive clash.
Some demonstrators also cited the evidence of cables from the United States Embassy in Tunisia that were released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks providing vividly detailed accounts of the first family’s self-enrichment and opulent lifestyle.
The importance of this revelation is hard to overstate. While observational evidence that the president and his family enjoyed a lifestyle of opulence and largesse, it was access to US State Department cables supporting these observations that in all likelihood fueled and shifted the protests from seeking redress of economic grievances to rejecting Ben-Ali's fitness to serve, and ultimately to his overthrow.
This goes to the heart of why Wikileaks' release of US State Department cables are so important, and a positive contribution to self-governance. WikiLeaks is about documentary discovery. These are official government documents illuminating official government business in the language of official analysis and information gathering. What anyone thought or suspected or knew in their gut is genetically different from official documents that corroborate or expand upon our suspicions. Armed with corroboratory, official, and once-secret evidence that their president was a crook, Tunisians these past weeks settled on their course of action -- expulsion of Ben-Ami from office.
Probably the most damning cable about the Tunisian leadership -- written by Amb. Robert Godec on July 9, 2009 -- was given comprehensive play by the Guardian UK on December 7th. It is damning not just for documenting official US opinion that Ben-Ami was corrupt and deeply authoritarian, but that the United States nonetheless should continuing supporting his regime in the service of undermining Al Qaeda sympathizers. Godec first offers the following indictment of Ben-Ami --
"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.
"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."
Godec goes on to assert US dismay with the anti-democratic character of the regime, but dependence upon it in waging the WOT --
- (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.
Godec summarizes as follows his recommendation that we continue engaging with the deposed dictator, while maintaining open channels with oppositional elements.
- (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.
- (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.
- (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.
That moment of Ben-Ali's departure has come now, and in the eighteen months between the cable and today's ouster, our policy of engagement with Ben-Ali is evident thanks to this cable. (We can't know whether the US participated in his overthrow as the denouement approached, but sunlighting that evidence would seem welcome at this point.) What does seem clear is our government remains wedded to engaging with (and so by sustaining) the least savory of the world's dictators in the service of our war on terror.
We know this to be true because of the Wikileaks cable release.