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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
08TUNIS679 2008-06-23 13:01 2010-12-07 21:09 SECRET Embassy Tunis

DE RUEHTU #0679/01 1751355
P 231355Z JUN 08
SS E C R E T TUNIS 000679 



E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/23/2018 

REF: A. TUNIS 615 
B. TUNIS 568 
C. TUNIS 365 
D. TUNIS 169 
E. TUNIS 113 
F. 07 TUNIS 1489 
G. 07 TUNIS 1443 
H. 07 TUNIS 1433 
I. 06 TUNIS 2848 
J. 06 TUNIS 1673 
K. 06 TUNIS 1672 
L. 06 TUNIS 1630 
M. 06 TUNIS 1622 
N. 01 TUNIS 2971 

Classified By: Ambassador Robert F. Godec for Reasons 1.4 (b) and (d). 


1. (S) According to Transparency International's annual 
survey and Embassy contacts' observations, 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. 
Beyond the stories of the First Family's shady dealings, 
Tunisians report encountering low-level corruption as well in 
interactions with the police, customs, and a variety of 
government ministries. The economic impact is clear, with 
Tunisian investors -- fearing the long-arm of "the Family" -- 
forgoing new investments, keeping domestic investment rates 
low and unemployment high (Refs G, H). These persistent 
rumors of corruption, coupled with rising inflation and 
continued unemployment, have helped to fuel frustration with 
the GOT and have contributed to recent protests in 
southwestern Tunisia (Ref A). With those at the top believed 
to be the worst offenders, and likely to remain in power, 
there are no checks in the system. End Summary. 

The Sky's the Limit 

2. (C) According to Transparency International's 2007 index, 
the perception is that corruption in Tunisia is getting 
worse. Tunisia's ranking on the index dropped from 43 in 
2005 to 61 in 2007 (out of 179 countries) with a score of 4.2 
(with 1 the most corrupt and 10 the least corrupt). Although 
corruption is hard to verify and even more difficult to 
quantify, our contacts all agree that the situation is headed 
in the wrong direction. When asked whether he thought 
corruption was better, worse, or the same, XXXXXXXXXXXX
 exclaimed in  exasperation, "Of course it's getting worse!"
He stated that  corruption could not but increase as the culprits
looked for  more and more opportunities. Joking about Tunisia's
rising  inflation, he said that even the cost of bribes was up. "A 
traffic stop used to cost you 20 dinars and now it's up to 40 
or 50!" 

All in the Family 

3. (S) 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. Along with the numerous 
allegations of Trabelsi corruption are often barbs about 
their lack of education, low social status, and conspicuous 
consumption. While some of the complaints about the Trabelsi 
clan seem to emanate from a disdain for their nouveau riche 
inclinations, Tunisians also argue that the Trabelsis strong 
arm tactics and flagrant abuse of the system make them easy 
to hate. Leila's brother Belhassen Trabelsi is the most 
notorious family member and is rumored to have been involved 
in a wide-range of corrupt schemes from the recent Banque de 
Tunisie board shakeup (Ref B) to property expropriation and 
extortion of bribes. Leaving the question of their 
progenitor aside, Belhassen Trabelsi's holdings are extensive 
and include an airline, several hotels, one of Tunisia's two 
private radio stations, car assembly plants, Ford 
distribution, a real estate development company, and the list 
goes on. (See Ref K for a more extensive list of his 
holdings.) Yet, Belhassen is only one of Leila's ten known 
siblings, each with their own children. Among this large 
extended family, Leila's brother Moncef and nephew Imed are 
also particularly important economic actors. 

4. (S/NF) The President is often given a pass, with many 
Tunisians arguing that he is being used by the Trabelsi clan 
and is unaware of their shady dealings. XXXXXXXXXXXX
 a strong supporter of the government and member of 
XXXXXXXXXXXX, told the Ambassador that the problem is 
not Ben Ali, but "the Family" going too far and breaking the 
rules. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe Ben Ali is not 
aware, at least generally, of the growing corruption problem. 
This might also reflect the seeming geographical divisions 
between the Ben Ali and Trabelsi fiefdoms, with the Ben Ali 
clan reportedly focused on the central coastal regional and 
the Trabelsi clan operating out of the greater Tunis area and 
therefore, generating the bulk of the gossip. The Ben Ali 
side of the Family and his children and in-laws from his 
first marriage are also implicated in a number of stories. 
Ben Ali has seven siblings, of which his late brother Moncef 
was a known drug trafficker, sentenced in absentia to 10 
years prison in the French courts. Ben Ali has three 
children with his first wife Naima Kefi: Ghaouna, Dorsaf and 
Cyrine. They are married respectively to Slim Zarrouk, Slim 
Chiboub, and Marouane Mabrouk -- all significant economic 

This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land 

5. (S/NF) With real estate development booming and land 
prices on the rise, owning property or land in the right 
location can either be a windfall or a one-way ticket to 
expropriation. In summer 2007, Leila Ben Ali received a 
desirable tract of land in Carthage for free from the GOT in 
order to build the for-profit Carthage International School 
(Ref F). In addition to the land, the school received a 1.8 
million dinar (US $1.5 million) gift from the GOT, and within 
a matter of weeks the GOT had built new roads and stoplights 
to facilitate school access. It has been reported that Ms. 
Ben Ali has sold the Carthage International School to Belgian 
investors, but the Belgian Embassy has as yet been unable to 
confirm or discount the rumor. XXXXXXXXXXXX asserted
that the  school was indeed sold for a huge, but undisclosed sum.
He  noted any such sale would be pure profit since Ms. Ben Ali's 
received land, infrastructure, and a hefty bonus at no cost. 

6. (S/NF) Construction on an enormous and garish mansion has 
been underway next to the Ambassador's residence for the past 
year. Multiple sources have told us that the home is that of 
Sakhr Materi, President Ben Ali's son-in-law and owner of 
Zitouna Radio. This prime real estate was reportedly 
expropriated from its owner by the GOT for use by the water 
authority, then later granted to Materi for private use. A 
cafe owner recounted a similar tale to an Embassy employee, 
reporting that Belhassen Trabelsi forced him to trade in a 
cafe he previously owned in a prime location for his current 
cafe. The cafe owner stated Trabelsi told him he could do 
whatever he wanted there; if 50 dinar bribes to the police 
were not effective, Trabelsi said the owner had only to call 
him and he would "take care of it." 

Yacht Wanted 

6. (S/NF) In 2006, Imed and Moaz Trabelsi, Ben Ali's nephews, 
are reported to have stolen the yacht of a well-connected 
French businessman, Bruno Roger, Chairman of Lazard Paris. 
The theft, widely reported in the French press, came to light 
when the yacht, freshly painted to cover distinguishing 
characteristics, appeared in the Sidi Bou Said harbor. 
Roger's prominence in the French establishment created a 
potential irritant in bilateral relations and according to 
reports, the yacht was swiftly returned. The stolen yacht 
affair resurfaced in early 2008 due to an Interpol warrant 
for the two Trabelsis. In May, the brothers were brought 
before Tunisian courts, in a likely effort to satisfy 
international justice. The outcome of their case has not 
been reported. 

Show Me Your Money 

7. (S) Tunisia's financial sector remains plagued by serious 
allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement. 
Tunisian business people joke that the most important 
relationship you can have is with your banker, reflecting the 
importance of personal connections rather than a solid 
business plan in securing financing. The legacy of 
relationship-based banking is a sector-wide rate of 
non-performing loans that is 19 percent, which remains high 
but is lower than a high of 25 percent in 2001 (Ref I). 
Embassy contacts are quick to point out that many of these 
loans are held by wealthy Tunisian business people who use 
their close ties to the regime to avoid repayment (Ref E). 
Lax oversight makes the banking sector an excellent target of 
opportunity, with multiple stories of "First Family" schemes. 
The recent reshuffle at Banque de Tunisie (Ref B), with the 
Foreign Minister's wife assuming the presidency and Belhassen 
Trabelsi named to the board, is the latest example. 
According to a representative from Credit Agricole, Marouane 
Mabrouk, another of Ben Ali's sons-in-law, purchased a 17 
percent share of the former Banque du Sud (now Attijari Bank) 
shares immediately prior to the bank's privatization. This 
17 percent share was critical to acquiring controlling 
interest in the bank since the privatization represented only 
a 35 percent share in the bank. The Credit Agricole rep 
stated that Mabrouk shopped his shares to foreign banks with 
a significant premium, with the tender winner, 
Spanish-Moroccan Santander-Attijariwafa ultimately paying an 
off the books premium to Mabrouk. XXXXXXXXXXXX
 recounted that when he was still  at his bank he used to receive
phone calls from panicked  clients who stated that Belhassen Trabelsi
had asked them for  money. He did not indicate whether he advised
them to pay. 

The Trickle Down Effect 

8. (S) While the stories of high-level, Family corruption are 
among the most flagrant and oft-repeated, Tunisians report 
encountering low-level corruption more frequently in their 
daily lives. Speeding tickets can be ignored, passports can 
be expedited, and customs can be bypassed -- all for the 
right price. Donations to the GOT's 26-26 Fund for 
development or to the Bessma Society for the Handicapped -- 
Leila Ben Ali's favored charity -- are also believed to 
grease the wheels. Hayet Louani (protect), a well-connected 
member of Parliament, faced increased pressure from the GOT 
after refusing several "requests" to donate money to 
Trabelsi's soccer team. XXXXXXXXXXXX reported
that customs inspectors demanded 10,000  dinars to
get his goods through customs; he did not reveal  whether
or not he acquiesced to the demand. 

9. (S) Nepotism is also believed to play a significant role 
in awarding scholarships and offering jobs. Knowing the 
right people at the Ministry of Higher Education can 
determine admission to the best schools or can mean a 
scholarship for study abroad. An Embassy FSN stated that the 
Director of International Cooperation, a long-time contact, 
offered to give his son a scholarship to Morocco on the basis 
of their acquaintance. If you do not know someone, money can 
also do the trick. There are many stories of Tunisians 
paying clerks at the Ministry of Higher Education to get 
their children into better schools than were merited by their 
test scores. Government jobs -- a prize in Tunisia -- are 
also believed to be doled out on the basis of connections. 
Leila Ben Ali's late mother, Hajja Nana, is also reported to 
have acted as a broker for both school admissions and 
government job placement, providing her facilitation services 
for a commission. Among the complaints from the protestors 
in the mining area of Gafsa were allegations that jobs in the 
Gafsa Phosphate Company were given on the basis of 
connections and bribery. 

Mob Rule? 
10. (S/NF) The numerous stories of familial corruption are 
certainly galling to many Tunisians, but beyond the rumors of 
money-grabbing is a frustration that the well-connected can 
live outside the law. One Tunisian lamented that Tunisia was 
no longer a police state, it had become a state run by the 
mafia. "Even the police report to the Family!" he exclaimed. 
With those at the top believed to be the worst offenders, 
and likely to remain in power, there are no checks in the 
system. The daughter of a former governor recounted that 
Belhassen Trabelsi flew into her father's office in a rage -- 
even throwing an elderly office clerk to the ground -- after 
being asked to abide by laws requiring insurance coverage for 
his amusement park. Her father wrote a letter to President 
Ben Ali defending his decision and denouncing Trabelsi's 
tactics. The letter was never answered, and he was removed 
from his post shortly thereafter. The GOT's strong 
censorship of the press ensures that stories of familial 
corruption are not published. The Family's corruption 
remains a red line that the press cross at their own peril. 
Although the February imprisonment of comedian Hedi Oula 
Baballah was ostensibly drug-related, human rights groups 
speculate his arrest was punishment for a 30 minute stand-up 
routine spoofing the President and his in-laws (Tunis D). 
International NGOs have made the case that the harsh prison 
conditions faced by journalist Slim Boukdhir, who was 
arrested for failing to present his ID card and insulting a 
police officer, are directly related to his articles 
criticizing government corruption. Corruption remains a 
topic relegated to hushed voices with quick glances over the 

The Elephant in the Room 

11. (S) Several Tunisian economists argue that it does not 
matter whether corruption is actually increasing because 
"perception is reality." The perception of increasing 
corruption and the persistent rumors of shady backroom 
dealings has a negative impact on the economy regardless of 
the veracity. Contacts tell us they afraid to invest for 
fear that the family will suddenly want a cut. "What's the 
point?" Alaya Bettaieb asked, "The best case scenario is that 
my investment succeeds and someone important tries to take a 
cut." Persistently low domestic investment rates bear this 
out (Ref H). Foreign bank accounts, while illegal, are 
reportedly commonplace. A recent Ministry of Finance amnesty 
to encourage Tunisians to repatriate their funds has been an 
abject failure. Bettaeib stated that he plans to incorporate 
his new business in Mauritania or Malta, citing fear of 
unwanted interference. Many economists and business people 
note that strong investment in real estate and land reflects 
the lack of confidence in the economy and an effort to keep 
their money safe (Ref C). 

12. (S) Thus far, foreign investors have been undeterred, and 
according to Tunisian business contacts, largely unaffected. 
Foreign investment continues to flow in at a healthy rate, 
even excluding the privatizations and huge Gulf projects 
which have yet to get underway. Foreign investors more 
rarely report encountering the type of extortion faced by 
Tunisians, perhaps reflecting that foreign investors have 
recourse to their own embassies and governments. British Gas 
representatives told the Ambassador they had not encountered 
any impropriety. XXXXXXXXXXXX stated that several years ago 
Belhassen Trabelsi attempted to strong arm a German company 
producing in the offshore sector, but that after the German 
Embassy intervened Trabelsi was explicitly cautioned to avoid 
offshore companies. Despite pronouncements about increasing 
domestic investment, the GOT focuses heavily on increasing 
FDI flows to the country, particularly in the offshore 
sector. Nevertheless, there are still several examples of 
foreign companies or investors being pressured into joining 
with the "right" partner. The prime example remains 
McDonald's failed entry into Tunisia. When McDonald's chose 
to limit Tunisia to one franchisee not of the GOT's choosing, 
the whole deal was scuttled by the GOT's refusal to grant the 
necessary authorization and McDonald's unwillingness to play 
the game by granting a license to a franchisee with Family 

13. (S) Although the petty corruption rankles, it is the 
excesses of President Ben Ali's family that inspire outrage 
among Tunisians. With Tunisians facing rising inflation and 
high unemployment, the conspicuous displays of wealth and 
persistent rumors of corruption have added fuel to the fire. 
The recent protests in the mining region of Gafsa provide a 
potent reminder of the discontent that remains largely 
beneath the surface. This government has based its 
legitimacy on its ability to deliver economic growth, but a 
growing number of Tunisians believe those as the top are 
keeping the benefits for themselves. 

14. (S) Corruption is a problem that is at once both 
political and economic. The lack of transparency and 
accountability that characterize Tunisia's political system 
similarly plague the economy, damaging the investment climate 
and fueling a culture of corruption. For all the talk of a 
Tunisian economic miracle and all the positive statistics, 
the fact that Tunisia's own investors are steering clear 
speaks volumes. Corruption is the elephant in the room; it 
is the problem everyone knows about, but no one can publicly 
acknowledge. End Comment. 

Please visit Embassy Tunis' Classified Website at: fm