Cablegate: Scenesetter for Visit of Codel Inouye

Published: Wed 21 Nov 2007 06:25 AM
DE RUEHTU #1496/01 3250625
P 210625Z NOV 07
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. (U) Embassy Tunis warmly welcomes Senators Daniel Inouye
and Theodore Stevens and accompanying members of CODEL Inouye
to Tunis from November 25 - 26, 2007. Tunisia proudly -- and
justifiably -- calls itself a "country that works." Despite
Tunisia's relatively small economy and lack of natural
resources, the Tunisian government has proven itself capable
of providing basic education, health care, housing and a
workable infrastructure to its population. Tunisia has the
most diversified economy in the region and enjoys one of the
highest standards of living on the continent. The political
system is dominated by a single party, the Democratic
Constitutional Rally (RCD), and political liberties are
tightly controlled. This cable provides background
information on these themes. END SUMMARY.
The Bilateral Relationship
2. (SBU) Your visit takes place in the context of a
long-standing and positive bilateral relationship; the United
States was the first Western power to recognize an
independent Tunisia in 1956. The Embassy has requested
meetings with President Ben Ali and Minister of National
Defense Kamel Morjane. The Minister may want to discuss
opportunities for expanding US financial support for the
Tunisian military (see also para 9). The Ministry of Foreign
Affairs has suggested a meeting with Secretary of State Saida
Chtioui, who is likely to give an overview of Tunisia's views
on key security, political, economic and social issues.
3. (SBU) Recent high-level visits include the February 2006
visit by former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and a May 2006
visit by then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick.
More recently, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Admiral Edmund Giambastiani visited and Tunisia hosted the
22nd US-Tunisia Joint Military Commission (JMC) meetings,
both in May 2007. The Government of Tunisia warmly welcomed
CODELs Tanner, Cramer and Jackson-Lee in mid-2007.
Socio-Economic Context
4. (SBU) Tunisia proudly -- and justifiably -- calls itself a
"country that works." Despite Tunisia's relatively small
economy and lack of natural resources, the Tunisian
government provides basic education, health care, housing and
a workable infrastructure to its population. Tunisian woman
enjoy more rights and opportunities than in any other Arab
Muslim country. As a result of these policies, the majority
of Tunisians are generally moderate and desire a government
intent on modernizing the country and integrating it fully
into the world economy.
5. (U) Tunisia has the most diversified economy in the region
and enjoys one of the highest standards of living on the
continent. The country does not have vast reserves of
hydrocarbons like its neighbors Algeria and Libya but has
prospered under long-standing government policies to develop
manufacturing industries for export and to promote tourism.
The Government of Tunisia also seeks to attract foreign
direct investment and strengthen its traditional agricultural
sector. Thanks to these policies, Tunisia's economy has
maintained average annual growth rates of almost five percent
over the past ten years. At the same time, social programs
limit population growth, provide a high standard of
education, and ensure a relatively decent standard of living
for all. Average annual per capita income is approximately
US $3000. The United States hopes Tunisia will be part of
President Bush's vision of a Middle East Free Trade Area, and
the United States and Tunisia signed a Trade and Investment
Framework Agreement (TIFA) in 2002 to strengthen bilateral
economic engagement.
Political Overview
6. (SBU) Tunisia is a constitutional republic with a
population of approximately 10 million, dominated by a single
political party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD).
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been the president since 1987,
celebrating his 20 years in office on November 7. Although
three opposition parties fielded candidates in the October
2004 presidential election, official results indicated that
President Ben Ali won approximately 94 percent of the
registered popular vote. The official turnout was reportedly
higher than 90 percent of registered voters, although there
were indications that voter turnout figures were artificially
inflated. Tunisia has a bicameral legislature. In addition
to the Chamber of Deputies, a second legislative body, the
Chamber of Advisors, was created in a 2002 referendum
amending the Constitution. The legislature plays a limited
role as an arena for debate on national policy but never
introduces legislation and virtually always passes bills
presented by the Executive with only minor changes. National
elections - both presidential and legislative - will be next
held in 2009.
7. (SBU) Political liberties remain tightly controlled and
civil society development is stifled. Tunisia's sluggishness
on political reform has been a point of contention in the
US-Tunisian relationship in recent years. Although President
Ben Ali has introduced some positive political reforms in the
past two years (pardoning some political prisoners, lifting a
form of censorship for print media, registering a new
political party and independent media outlets), civil society
and human rights groups remain deeply cynical and continue to
report many instances of government harassment, intimidation,
and limits on their activities. Journalists reject the
suggestion that press censorship has ended and local media
usually lacks any meaningful coverage of domestic political
issues. In the 2006 Reporters Without Borders Worldwide
Press Freedom Index, Tunisia was ranked 148 out of 168
Security Situation
8. (SBU) There is a threat of terrorism in Tunisia,
particularly in light of the recent establishment of
al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In January 2007, the
Government of Tunisia announced that Tunisian security forces
disrupted a terrorist group in December 2006/January 2007,
killing or capturing many individuals who reportedly planned
to carry out acts of violence in Tunisia. The US Embassy in
Tunis was reportedly among the group's intended targets. In
2002, a faction of al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for an
attack on the Ghriba synagogue on the southern island of
Djerba, the first al-Qaeda related terrorist attack after
September 11.
9. (SBU) The Government of Tunisia remains concerned about
signs of increasing Islamic extremism and considers national
security as one of its major priorities. Therefore, it
places a high value on its historic and robust
military-military relationship with the United States.
Unfortunately, and against the backdrop of a very limited
national budget, new equipment is needed to match the
evolving and common threat of transnational terrorism. At
present, Tunisia receives approximately US $8 million in
Foreign Military Financing (FMF), nearly all of which is used
for the partial maintenance of its aging fleets of US-origin
equipment. FMF is expected to drop in FY-08 to possibly as
low as US $2 million, which will make any significant
recapitalization of the Tunisian Armed Forces problematic,
unless additional third-country or other financing is
secured. In addition to arguing for increased FMF in FY-09,
the Mission is also pursuing possible options for 1206
10. (SBU) That said, Tunisia has been and remains an active
participant in United Nations peacekeeping missions,
including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC),
Ethiopia and Eritrea. The GOT is supportive of several
military issues of mutual interest, takes part in NATO
seminars and activities, and is extremely appreciative of US
assistance (which includes IMET, USEUCOM Humanitarian
Assistance, counterterrorism related seminars, and other
activities). In fact, the GOT reciprocated the USG's past
generosity with a symbolic gesture of two C-130 loads -- some
20 tons -- of humanitarian assistance in the wake of
Hurricane Katrina.
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