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Shehata: Cables reveal US knew extent of Ben Ali’s corruption and rights violations but still treated him as an ally

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay coming to you from Washington. Samer Shehata is an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, and he also is an expert in the Middle East, and especially in social movements in Egypt and other areas of the region. And he’s been following WikiLeaks. So we’re interested in what’s popped out for him. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: What’s jumped out for you?

SHEHATA: The things that have jumped out at me, of course, have related to cables coming out of Cairo, and–as well as cables coming out of Tunis, also, as a result of what’s been going on in Tunisia these days. So with regards to Tunis, for example, Tunisia, it is striking to me the knowledge that the Americans had of the extent, the depth of corruption in Tunisia. The cables are very specific. The American ambassador, for example, is invited to Ben Ali’s son-in-law’s house for dinner, and he describes the opulence, the luxury. He has a tiger or a lion in a cage that he shows his visitors and so on. And it really is, you know, absurd, almost, the extent to which they were living, you know, excessively, and the Americans know this, of course. There are also rumors about the extent of corruption, going all the way up to Ben Ali himself. One of the cables mentions that there is credible information that on a certain business deal, Ben Ali said to someone, I want 50 percent. The involvement of Ben Ali’s wife in tremendous amounts of corruption, including a deal with Suha Arafat, President Arafat’s wife, as it were, and her situation in Tunisia. For some time she was a resident. She was given nationality so she could do business there. Then her nationality was revoked and she left to Malta, and this had to do with, according to the cables, business deals gone badly between the president’s wife and Mrs. Arafat. So the Americans certainly knew the extent of corruption. They also knew the unpopularity of the Ben Ali regime.

JAY: So that then begs the question what did they do about knowing all of this, which is nothing. He was their guy.

SHEHATA: It seems very little, yes. It seems that there were some occasional discussions of opening up media freedoms and so on. But in terms of real pressure, prioritizing this, pressing Ben Ali or the regime in the media or privately, no, there seems to have been no serious pressure whatsoever.

JAY: So it really ends up being quite a condemnation of US policy towards Tunisia, that they know the inside story of just how rotten the regime is, and he’s still one of their friendly dictators.

SHEHATA: I think so. There’s no way to look at it in a positive light, despite these recent statements.

JAY: Other than that they’re good observers.

SHEHATA: Other than they’re good observers, they’re good writers, they seem to be doing their job quite well. Yes, that’s the case. And, of course, over the last day or so, as Ben Ali has left the country, there have been, you know, optimistic or positive remarks made by President Obama about the need for democracy in Tunisia and so on, but too little, too late, really.

JAY: And it’s interesting he goes to Saudi Arabia as the place where he [inaudible]


JAY: Ben Ali. Yeah.


JAY: Another regime they probably have a pretty good inside take on, they being US analysts.

SHEHATA: I think a very good take, yes. In fact, there are cables about Saudi Arabia, too, that are very interesting, analyzing President Sarkozy’s visit to Saudi Arabia and basically saying that the French don’t understand the Saudis and the Saudis aren’t happy with them, how could President Sarkozy even consider taking his girlfriend at the time to Saudi Arabia on an official visit she was scheduled to attend, or his hard-nosed relations with them. The cables state that the Saudis, of course, like friendship and trust, whereas Sarkozy came and wants to sell them French goods without any of the kind of Arab, you know, hospitality and so on.

JAY: How big a deal was the WikiLeak cable release in Tunisia prior to the uprising?

SHEHATA: I don’t think it was that big of a deal, actually. I mean, there is–there was a great deal of attention focused on it, but there is a tendency I think we’ve been seeing in the last couple of days to say that the Tunisians saw the WikiLeaks cables and then they revolted. No. Almost anyone you ask in Tunisia knew the extent of the corruption and the individuals involved, especially that involving Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali’s wife. This was really confirmation that what people had heard, the rumors that were circulating in the country, were also verified, as it were, by the American State Department. So I don’t think that, you know, it played any causal role. But Tunisians read with great interest, like many other people in the Arab world, what the State Department was writing about politics in those countries.

JAY: And what’s jumped out at you from the Cairo cables?

SHEHATA: Well, the Cairo cables are interesting, because they also show a State Department very knowledgeable of the basic situation in Egypt. They know that President Mubarak isn’t terribly popular. They know that Gamal Mubarak, his younger son, who has been groomed to be the president, is also not very popular. They are conscious of the other potential players involved–Omar Suleiman, the head of military intelligence, and so on. And yet there’s really not that great of concern for the lack of democracy or the possibility of a father-to-son succession in a supposed republic in the most populous Arab country in the world, the one that receives a huge amount of American military and economic assistance annually. So there’s no real concern for that. And we saw that recently with the very mild statements that came out of the State Department in response to the utterly farcical Egyptian “elections”, quote-unquote, that took place at the end of November, the beginning of December 2010.

JAY: Anything that surprised you, where you said “ah-ha”?

SHEHATA: There were some things that were surprising. The fact that Saudi Arabia, for example, and King Abdullah said with regard to Iran and the possibility of a US military strike on Iran, you know, cut the head off the snake, you know, or that President Mubarak also seems to have encouraged an attack on Iran. You know, these are things that Arab leaders don’t say publicly, right? In fact, their official position is quite the opposite, right? They’re not–they don’t want war and regional turmoil. Also, the extent of American-Egyptian cooperation with regard to Gaza, I think, is also something that is interesting. It’s clear in the cables that–and we knew this, but we didn’t have any confirmation of this, that the Egyptians consider Hamas to be the enemy of Egypt and that they are, you know, willing to cooperate to some extent with the Israelis and the Americans because of a perceived mutual interest there, despite the suffering of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza.

JAY: Also some indication in the cables that Fatah itself is willing to cooperate with the Americans and Israelis to go after Hamas.

SHEHATA: And we knew that before, yes. And we knew that before, unfortunately, yeah.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.

SHEHATA: You’re very welcome.

JAY: And as you continue to read WikiLeaks, maybe you’ll come back and give us an update.

SHEHATA: Happy to. Happy to.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Samer Shehata is an assistant professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University. He is the author of the book: "Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt" published in 2009. Samer has also written numerous articles on Arab politics for the International Herald Tribune, Boston Globe and the Arab Reform Bulletin.