Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi. US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks said she was mocked by the president's opponents. Photograph: Hassene Dridi/AP

Tunisia has blocked the website of a Lebanese newspaper that published US cables released by WikiLeaks describing high-level corruption, a sclerotic regime, and deep hatred of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s wife and her family.

Deeply unflattering reports from the US embassy in Tunis, released by WikiLeaks, make no bones about the state of the small Maghreb country, widely considered one of the most repressive in a repressive region.

“The problem is clear,” wrote ambassador Robert Godec in July 2009, in a secret dispatch released by Beirut’s al-Akhbar newspaper. “Tunisia has been ruled by the same president for 22 years. He has no successor. And, while President Ben Ali deserves credit for continuing many of the progressive policies of President Bourguiba, he and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people. They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power.

“Corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, first lady Leila Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her; even those close to the government express dismay at her reported behaviour. Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia’s high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.”

Effective delivery of services, 5% economic growth, model rights for women and religious tolerance are all impressive and unusual for the region. But Tunisia suffers from high unemployment and regional inequities. It is also “a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems”. France, the former colonial power, and Italy are singled out as having “shied away” from applying pressure for political reform.

Frustrating though this all is, the US cannot afford to write off Tunisia. “We have too much at stake,” Godec’s report continued. “We have an interest in preventing al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups from establishing a foothold. We have an interest in keeping the Tunisian military professional and neutral. We also have an interest in fostering greater political openness and respect for human rights.”

Days later, an evening in the opulent home of Ben Ali’s son-in-law Mohamed Sakher El Materi provided a striking illustration of the “great wealth and excess” fuelling resentment of the presidential family. (El Materi had recently helped the British ambassador to secure several appointments for the Duke of York, who was visiting to promote UK trade.) Aged 28, he owns a shipping cruise line, concessions for Audi, Volkswagen, Porsche and Renault, a pharmaceutical manufacturing firm, and real estate companies.

El Materi, keen “to assist McDonald’s to enter Tunisia”, served a lavish dinner with ice cream and frozen yoghurt brought in by private plane from St Tropez, where he and his wife, Nesrine, one of the president’s daughters, had just spent a two-week holiday (although their favourite destination is the Maldives). The El Materi household includes a large tiger, named Pasha, living in a cage, which consumes four chickens a day. The situation “reminded the US envoy of Uday Hussein’s lion cage in Baghdad”. The couple were planning to move to a new home “closer to a palace”.

Godec concluded: “The opulence with which El Materi and Nesrine live and their behaviour make clear why they and other members of Ben Ali’s family are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians. The excesses of the Ben Ali family are growing.”

Ian Black, Middle East editor
Tuesday 7 December 2010