In Tunisia, An Unfinished Revolt

In Tunisia, An Unfinished Revolt

Of course, it’s hardly finished, and on Monday new demonstrations erupted when a "unity government" was appointed that included many members of the former ruling clique, led by a prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, who was close ally of the toppled President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali. Sadly, the defense and interior (police) ministries are still controlled by the Ben Ali group, and some opposition parties, including the Communists and the Islamist parties, were excluded entirely.

The military has used a velvet glove so far in dealing with the protests, and some important former officials, including the former interior minister and Ben Ali’s chief security adviser, have been arrested.

Ben Ali fled on Friday night, reportedly taking up residence in Saudi Arabia. Hilariously, since Saudi Arabia fears nothing more than a Tunisia-style revolt against its own kleptocratic regime of ten thousand princes, the Saudi government issued a statement that read: "The government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announces that it stands fully behind the Tunisia people." With a garrote, no doubt.

Still, it’s a breathtaking and refreshing event to witness, and to a significant degree, the popular revolt that snowballed beginning in December, with the suicide by fire of a college-educated street vendor whose cart was seized by the police, was sparked by the Wikileaks-released cables from US diplomats in Tunisia who penned scathing (but until Wikileaks, private) accounts of corruption and self-dealing by the family of the now-deposed President Ben Ali, the kleptocrat who squatted on top of that country until last week.

Read one cable: "Corruption in Tunisia is getting worse. Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants.… Although the petty corruption rankles, it is the excesses of President Ben Ali’s family that inspire outrage among Tunisians," the cable said. "With Tunisians facing rising inflation and high unemployment, the conspicuous displays of wealth and persistent rumors of corruption have added fuel to the fire."

Other cables compared a scion of the Ben Ali family to Saddam Hussein’s sons, and described lavish, extravagant parties that "make clear why they and other members of Ben Ali’s family are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians."

A 2008 cable said:

"President Ben Ali’s extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption. Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of ‘the Family’ is enough to indicate which family you mean. Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage. Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Ben Ali, and her extended family — the Trabelsis — provoke the greatest ire from Tunisians."

That cable detailed the enormous and powerful reach of the Ben Ali family and his in-laws, the Trabelsis, including Leila Ben Ali’s ten siblings and their extended kin.

According to the New York Times, Tunisian activists created their own Wikileaks-linked site, called Tunileaks, in late November, 2010, and its impact spread quickly among Tunisia’s educated middle class and its disenfranchised workers and the poor.

Robert Dreyfuss is the author of "Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam" (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books).