Tunisia: WikiLeaks had a part in Ben Ali’s downfall

Jan 15, 2011
Nigel Horne

Obama welcomes Tunisians’ courage and dignity - but what about the WikiLeaks contribution?

Have we just witnessed the first WikiLeaks-inspired revolution? It is clear that leaked cables from the US Ambassador in Tunis, describing the opulent lifestyle of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's family and the public loathing for his wife, Leila Trabelsi, played an important role in firing up the nation's disaffected youth.

Spreading the word via Twitter and Facebook, young Tunisians felt encouraged in their protests by the fact that the corruption inside the presidential palace at Carthage, and throughout Ben Ali's extended family, was now common knowledge.

As the New York Times reported from Tunis yesterday, the WikiLeaks cables added "grist" to the protesters' complaints.

One leaked memo sent from Tunis to Washington by US Ambassador Robert F Godec on July 17, 2009 was headed: 'TROUBLED TUNISIA: WHAT SHOULD WE DO?'

"Tunisia is a police state," wrote Ambassador Godec, "with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems...

"The problem is clear: President Ben Ali... and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people. They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international."

Just how much the regime had lost touch with the Tunisian people, the Ambassador was able to describe 10 days later in another cable. It followed a dinner hosted by the president's son-in-law, a wealthy businessman called Mohammad Sakher El Materi, and his wife Nesrine, President Ben Ali's daughter.

The "lavish" meal was held at the couple's opulent home in Hammamet, a seaside resort well known to European holiday-makers for its grand four- and five-star hotels.

The Materis' beachfront compound was decorated with Roman columns and frescoes and there were servants everywhere, according to Ambassador Godec, including a Bangladeshi butler and a South African nanny ("NB. This is extraordinarily rare in Tunisia, and very expensive."). After dinner, guests were served ice cream and frozen yoghurt flown in from Saint Tropez.

Materi kept a large tiger called 'Pasha' in a cage. It consumed four chickens a day, according to the Ambassador, and reminded him of Uday Hussein's lion in Baghdad.

The president's son-in-law spent part of dinner discussing his wish to open a McDonald's franchise in Tunis. He also promised Ambassador Godec he would seek to "fix the problem" concerning the American School in Tunis - which brings us to the president's wife, Leila Trabelsi.

Trabelsi has been the subject of more rumour and conjecture on the streets of Tunis than any member of the First Family. She apparently escaped Tunis to Dubai several days before her husband was finally ousted on Friday. (Latest reports say he has sought refuge in Saudi Arabia.)

As Ambassador Godec wrote in his July 17 cable, "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."

A former hairdresser, she was the subject of a hard-hitting French biography called La Regente de Carthage which accused her of all manner of corrupt activities and has been banned - until now - in Tunisia.

Among her recent adventures was a move to have the famous American School in Tunis closed down so that another school, built on land she owned in Carthage, could be promoted in its stead.

The riots that led to the Ben Ali family fleeing the country were triggered by the suicide on December 17 of a 26-year-old university graduate in the city of Sidi Bouzid. When his wares were confiscated by a policeman because he had no licence for his fruit and vegetables stand, Mohammed Bouazzi soaked himself with petrol and lit a match.

But 10 days before that tragedy occurred, it was reported by western media that Tunisia had blocked the website of the Beirut newspaper al-Akhbar because it was carrying the WikiLeaks Godec cables. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, it was a largely pointless exercise.

The irony now is that WikiLeaks, public enemy number one in Washington, almost certainly helped depose a man who the Obama administration wanted out.

"I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia," said President Obama in a statement issued yesterday, "and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people.

"The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard."

No one is suggesting WikiLeaks and its editor Julian Assange can take full credit for toppling the corrupt Tunisian regime. But the whistleblower's contribution to Ben Ali's downfall might at least give the US Justice Department, determined to prosecute Assange as a spy, pause for thought.

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