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What happened to the nice Tunisia Rumsfeld told us about?

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Former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld praised Tunisia as a democracy in 2006 [Reuters]By Imran Garda

Former US ambassador to Tunisia Robert Godec’s ominous warnings in a confidential embassy cable about his nation’s North African ally in 2008 and 2009 have an additional political juiciness when read against the backdrop of unfolding events in the country.

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

And in another extract, “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. And, 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."

Despite these warnings from the ambassador, it was never intimated that the United States would take any action against the government, not even reducing the lucrative business relationship enjoyed by the two nations.

Choosing its words carefully

Now, as the country bubbles with political fervour after that chain of events that organically emerged from the youth, although choosing its words carefully, the superpower has backed the protesters.

“The people of Tunisia have spoken," said state department official PJ Crowley. Endorsing the movement that toppled Zein El Abidine Ben Ali, Crowley said the US hopes for “a genuine transition to democracy” - of course strongly implying that there never was democracy there in the first place.

It is worth rewinding and noting some choice words that former US secretary of state Colin Powell had to say about the country when he visited in December 2003.

"Our bilateral relationship is very, very strong," said Powell. "We are great admirers of Tunisia and the progress that has been achieved under president Ben Ali's leadership."

Just says before his trip, Human Rights Watch had urged Powell in a press release to pressure the country on human rights violations. 

And it was only a few months earlier, in February of that year, that he gave his famous presentation to the UN, about the rationale to invade Iraq.

After his stirring performance listing the conclusive proof of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and his unquestionable ties to al-Qaeda, Powell completed the slam dunk by moving towards the conclusion of his speech with this, “My friends, this has been a long and a detailed presentation, and I thank you for your patience. But there is one more subject that I would like to touch on briefly, and it should be a subject of deep and continuing concern to this council: Saddam Hussein's violations of human rights.“ 

'Constructive leadership'

A visit to Tunisia by defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in February 2006 proves even more revealing:

"We have a very long relationship with Tunisia," Rumsfeld remarked after the meetings.

"Tunisia is a moderate Muslim nation that has been and is today providing very constructive leadership in the world. The struggle that's taking place within that faith is a serious one, an important one. There's a very small number of violent extremists on the one side against a broad, overwhelming majority of people who are moderate." 
 
And with regards those within the government’s ruling elite that US officials called “The Family” in one of the WikiLeaks, who it was said are above the law in the country, Rumsfeld had a glowing reference, "They have demonstrated, if one looks at this successful country...the ability to create an environment that's hospitable to investment, to enterprise, and to opportunity for their people." Hardly sounds like the type of country whose people's economic desperation would lead to self-immolation. 

He spoke of a "very constructive military and diplomatic co-operation" between the two nations.

“Both of our countries have been attacked by violent extremists, so we know well the stakes involved in the struggle that's being waged.

“Tunisia has long been an important voice of moderation and tolerance in this region, and has played a key role in confronting extremists not just within this country, but in the area as well."

The Associated Press news agency quoted Rumsfeld as saying Tunisia was a “democracy”, but that it was moving “at different paces” on the social, economic and political levels. 

All three moving at such a rapid pace now, that the geo-political trade-offs, where stability trumps democracy, despite preaching the sanctity of the latter and the policy of aligning with the best worst guys around because of the national interest, no matter how they treat their own people whose freedom you claim to champion, may be up for reassessment.  

What happened to that nice democratic country that Rumsfeld and Powell told us about?


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