WASHINGTON — No one can say the Obama administration wasn't warned that Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled his northern African nation Friday night, was unpopular with his people.
That apparently was a regular theme of Ambassador Robert F. Godec, according to State Department cables made public last month by the website WikiLeaks.
In one, written in June 2008, when George W. Bush was still president, Godec wrote that "President Ben Ali's extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption."
"Ben Ali's wife, Leila Ben Ali, and her extended family — the Trabelsis — provoke the greatest ire from Tunisians," the ambassador wrote. "Along with the numerous allegations of Trabelsi corruption are often barbs about their lack of education, low social status, and conspicuous consumption."
In a cable written a year later, after President Barack Obama was in office, Godec again bemoaned the Ben Ali regime.
"By many measures, Tunisia should be a close U.S. ally," he said. "But it is not." He then described what he said was a "troubled" nation.
"President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic and there is no clear successor," Godec wrote in a cable dated July 17, 2009. "Many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities. Extremism poses a continuing threat. Compounding the problems, the GOT (government of Tunisia) brooks no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Instead, it seeks to impose ever greater control, often using the police."
Ten days later, the ambassador wrote another cable describing a lavish dinner at the beachfront home of Ben Ali's daughter Nesrine and son-in-law Sakher el Materi. He described the house as "impressive" and reported that the couple's pet tiger added "to the impression of 'over the top'."
"The opulence with which El Materi and Nesrine live and their behavior make clear why they and other members of Ben Ali's family are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians," the ambassador wrote. "The excesses of the Ben Ali family are growing."
What role the WikiLeaks cables played in the month of protests that led to Ben Ali's departure Friday is unknown. The event that touched off the protests was the self-immolation in early December of a college-educated vendor whose goods had been confiscated by police because he didn't have a license. But WikiLeaks' publication of the documents Dec. 7 roughly coincided with the rise of the protests that culminated in Ben Ali's departure from power after 23 years.
Friday night, Obama issued a statement condemning "the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, 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. . . . I have no doubt that Tunisia's future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people."
Ben Ali fled the country after a month of demonstrations that culminated in a huge protest by tens of thousands of demonstrators Friday. The French publication Jeune Afrique said Ben Ali's plane had flown over the island of Malta in the Mediterranean but that its destination was unknown. The French newspaper Le Monde reported that the French government had told Ben Ali he should not seek asylum there. Tunisia is a former French possession.
Jeune Afrique reported that the country's prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, had taken power temporarily and that the army had declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew.
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