U.S. diplomat warned of potential trouble in Tunisia nearly two years ago
That's because the former U.S. ambassador to Tunis, Robert F. Godec, warned his superiors nearly two years ago of rough times ahead for the country's authoritarian ruler, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
"President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic and there is no clear successor. Many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities," Goden wrote in a classified July 17, 2009, cable leaked last month by WikiLeaks. "Extremism poses a continuing threat. Compounding the problems, the GOP (government of Tunisia) brooks no advice or criticism, domestic or international. Instead, it seeks to impose ever greater control, often using the police. The result: Tunisia is troubled and our relations are too."
Godec went on to describe the country as "a police state, with little freedom of expression or association and serious human rights problems."
Godec, who became the State Department's deupty coordinator for counter-terrorism after leaving Tunis in 2009, reviewed some of the Tunisian government's more progressive policies, pointing to efforts to increase jobs, advance women's rights and a "long history of religious tolerance," including the protection of the Jewish community.
He lamented that U.S. relations with Tunisia were not better, but largely blamed the regime, which he said had resisted better ties and strictly limited contact by U.S. diplomats with Tunisian officials, opposition members and civil society activists.
"Too often, the GOT prefers the illusion of engagement to the hard work of real cooperation," he wrote.
Godec reported that Ben Ali and his regime were increasingly focused on "preserving power. And corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians dislike, even hate, First Lady Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her."
In his most prescient observation, Godec warned that "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."
Nearly two years later, the high jobless rate, soaring food prices and anger at government repression and corruption are being blamed for the worst anti-government unrest that Ben Ali has faced in almost 24 years in power. Whether he and his embattled regime will succeed in crushing the riots, in which more than 20 people had been killed as of this writing, remained to be seen.
One thing, however, seemed all but certain. As Godec wrote, "In the end, serious change here will have to await Ben Ali's departure."