afrol News, 18 January - A US Embassy cable from 2006 discussed the possible replacement of Tunisia's Dictator Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali. It left little faith in the opposition but in many ways foresaw PM Mohammed Ghannouchi's attempt to consolidate the ruling party's power and who will attempt to gain power.
The US Embassy cable, released by Wikileaks yesterday, reflects a period of uncertainty in Tunisia. US Ambassador William Hudson was struck by "an increasing number of Tunisians ... talking about succession and the end of the Ben Ali era," calling the situation "remarkable."
The US analysis from January 2006 does not in any way foresee a popular revolution ousting President Ben Ali. Rather, it emphasises that Mr Ben Ali "has a dictatorial hold on Tunisia" and it sees no real challenges to his power. Speculations about an end to the Ben Ali era were based on the President's old age - he would be 74 in the 2009 elections - and rumours about his prostate cancer.
Tunisians at that time, according to Ambassador Hudson, "often discuss whether he appears pale, thin or otherwise physically ill. While some people may state their hope that US and European pressure could force Ben Ali to become more democratic or relinquish the presidency, they are at a loss when asked who would succeed him," he observed.
No one had faith in the opposition. Ambassador Hudson describes it as "internally fragmented and weak" and lacking "organised platforms or significant membership." In a post-Ben Ali election, it was "unlikely any opposition candidate would garner enough strength to seriously challenge" a candidate from the ruling RCD party.
Rather, the US Embassy foresaw the RDC party to find a fit candidate to consolidate power soon after the departure of President Ben Ali - not unlike the current situation following Tunisia's popular revolution. The analysis points to Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi and parliamentary speaker Fouad Mebazaa as the most likely candidates for an interim authority; exactly the two men currently sharing power.
PM Ghannouchi is described as "an economist by training, is a respected figure in the 'technocratic' mold." Mr Ghannouchi has served as Prime Minister since 1999 and the mere length of his service suggested that "Ben Ali does not view him as a threat and that he is unlikely to be viewed as a qualified successor." Ambassador Hudson nevertheless held that "average Tunisians generally view him with respect and he is well-liked" compared to other party officials.
Speaker Mebazaa - currently Tunisia's interim President - was described as "a long-time ruling RCD party stalwart," with a key position in the RCD Politburo and a former Minister. Ambassador Hudson foresees that Mr Mebazaa's "principal task as interim President would be to organise elections and, from an RCD perspective, maintain the party's hold on power."
This view is shared by the protesters in Tunisia, who keep on filling the streets of major cities and towns, dema
nding the old RCD elite to step down. Mr Ghannouchi - who yesterday presented an RCD-dominated coalition government - and Mr Mebazaa are commonly seen as pulling strings to secure the RDC's and old elite's grip on power also after the revolution.
The current interim government has promised to organise election within six months - not 60 days as the constitution foresees. Several opposition candidates are already emerging, although strong candidates such as the returning exiled centre-left opposition leader Moncef Marzouki could be barred from standing because the constitution demands candidates to be a member of a party with at least one member in parliament.
The 2006 US cable foresees several leading RCD members to be the most likely to win a post-Ben Ali presidential election, carefully planned by interim leaders Ghannouchi and Mebazaa.
The principal RCD candidates, according to the US analysis, included Minister of State, Special Advisor to the President and Official Spokesman Abdelaziz Ben Dhia, Minister of Social Affairs Abroad Ali Chaouch, PM Ghannouchi, Minister of Defense Kamel Morjane and First Lady Leila Ben Ali.
Currently, the very unpopular ex-First Lady has fled the country with 1.5 tonnes of gold from the Central Bank, disqualifying her from the power struggle. Strongman Ben Dhia seems to personally attached to ex-President Ben Ali and too old (75 years old) to become a credible RCD candidate. Mr Chaouch, as a former Interior Minister, is widely seen as too attached to the dictatorship and is strongly unpopular.
The likeliest current candidates for the RCD presidential candidacy among the US list from 2006 seem to PM Ghannouchi and Minister Morjane. Mr Ghannouchi, while currently in a powerful position, is quickly losing his popularity and credibility as the popular protest now are directed towards him and as he is failing to provide the country with a stable government.
The rising star among RCD cadres seems to be ex-diplomat and former Defence Minister Morjane, who was appointed Foreign Minister by the current Ghannouchi interim government. The 63-year-old has so far avoided positions that connect him to the repressive machinery of ex-President Ben Ali. Foreign Minister Morjane currently seems to be the most likely RCD candidate in an upcoming presidential poll.
The remarkable 2006 analysis by US Ambassador Hudson still has a surprising validity as Tunisia struggles to find credible leaders in the post-Ben Ali era. The open question however is whether the protesters and the opposition will have enough strength to prevent Prime Minister Ghannouchi from securing the RCD and old elite from maintaining their grip on power.
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