The Other Mr. 10 Percent: Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is among the world's most corrupt dictators, giving the other "Mr. 10 Percent," Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari, a run for his corrupt millions. (Palestinian Press Office)
Maybe suggesting that Tunisia is one of 2011's best travel spots was a bit premature.
If you've been wondering lately why Tunisians have been rioting, brandishing "End the Dictatorship" placards and torching the odd building, look no further than a couple of places.
If you happen to be in Tunisia and can look around at the political structure, you'll notice that Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's dictatorship is a pretty repressive, unforgiving one. Ben Ali is among North Africa's coterie of dictators who (along with Algeria's, Morocco's, Egypt's and Libya's) like to pretend that because they image themselves democratic, then they are, when in reality they are among the world's most regressive political dungeons, doing their part to keep the Middle East the 21st century's version of the old Soviet Union, minus the nuclear weapons. Morocco is the least of the repressive regimes. But the other four are difficult to differentiate.
If, as most of us, you happen not to be in Tunisia, there's always the Wikileaks cable that unraveled it all: the corruption, the arrogance, the yachts, the shamelessness--of Ben Ali himself, and of course of his family, who has been benefiting from all the riches of his repression. That's the cable that's lifted the veil for so many Tunisians who, until then, could at least pretend that maybe, just maybe, things weren't as bad as the rumors.
The author of the cable has a wry sense of humor. The cable falls under the name of Robert Godec, Robert F. Godec, currently the Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the Department of State, and from 2006 to 2009 the U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia. He headlines his paragraphs with such things as "The Sky's the Limit," "All in the Family," "Yacht Wanted," "Show Me Your Money," "Mob Rule?" and so on, which gives you a quick idea of what Tunisia has been like.
The cable, incidentally, was marked secret, not to be declassified until 2018. So let's not have illusions about it, either: the United States, which has had uninterrupted relations with Tunisia since 1797 (going back to its settlement with Tunisian pirates over the Barbary Wars) is complicit with Ben Ali, not really critical of him. Tunisia in 2008 was the recipient of $8.3 million in U.S. military aid and a few more millions in economic aid, though Tunisia supported neither the 1991 Gulf War nor the 2003 invasion of Iraq (to Ben Ali's credit, incidentally).
Some excerps from the cable:
"According to Transparency International's annual survey and Embassy contacts' observations, corruption in Tunisia is getting worse. Whether it's cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali's family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants."
"President Ben Ali's extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption. Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of "the Family" is enough to indicate which family you mean. Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage. Ben Ali's wife, Leila Ben Ali, and her extended family -- the Trabelsis -- provoke the greatest ire from Tunisians. Along with the numerous allegations of Trabelsi corruption are often barbs about their lack of education, low social status, and conspicuous consumption."
"Construction on an enormous and garish mansion has been underway next to the Ambassador's residence for the past year. Multiple sources have told us that the home is that of Sakhr Materi, President Ben Ali's son-in-law and owner of Zitouna Radio. This prime real estate was reportedly expropriated from its owner by the GOT for use by the water authority, then later granted to Materi for private use."
"Imed and Moaz Trabelsi, Ben Ali's nephews, are reported to have stolen the yacht of a well-connected French businessman, Bruno Roger, Chairman of Lazard Paris. The theft, widely reported in the French press, came to light when the yacht, freshly painted to cover distinguishing characteristics, appeared in the Sidi Bou Said harbor."
"Tunisia's financial sector remains plagued by serious allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement. Tunisian business people joke that the most important relationship you can have is with your banker, reflecting the importance of personal connections rather than a solid business plan in securing financing."
"The numerous stories of familial corruption are certainly galling to many Tunisians, but beyond the rumors of money-grabbing is a frustration that the well-connected can live outside the law. One Tunisian lamented that Tunisia was no longer a police state, it had become a state run by the mafia. "Even the police report to the Family!" he exclaimed. With those at the top believed to be the worst offenders, and likely to remain in power, there are no checks in the system."
Want more? There's plenty. Read the full "Wikileaks Cable: Tunisian Corruption and President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali."