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Cablegate: The Png'ing of Suha Arafat: Many Rumors, Few Facts

VZCZCXRO8599
PP RUEHROV
DE RUEHTU #1489/01 3201713
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 161713Z NOV 07
FM AMEMBASSY TUNIS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 4109
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHVT/AMEMBASSY VALLETTA PRIORITY 0396

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 TUNIS 001489

SIPDIS

NOFORN
SIPDIS

STATE FOR NEA/IPA AND NEA/MAG (HOPKINS AND HARRIS)

E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/15/2017
TAGS: PREL PGOV SOCI PINR TS
SUBJECT: THE PNG'ING OF SUHA ARAFAT: MANY RUMORS, FEW FACTS

REF: A. IIR 6 897 0136 07 (NOTALS)
B. 06 TUNIS 2570

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

1. (C/NF) Summary: The GOT's decision last summer to revoke
Suha Arafat's Tunisian citizenship, which had only been
granted less than a year earlier, made international
headlines. Since the appearance of the official register
notice on August 7, the chattering class in Tunisia has not
ceased to speculate about the reasons behind the decision.
In a mid-October telcon with Ambassador Godec, Mrs. Arafat
attributed her ouster to the personal animus of First Lady
Leila Ben Ali, following a dispute over the forced closure of
the Bouebdelli School, a well-respected private school. Had
it remained open, the Bouebdelli School would have
represented serious competition to the new Carthage
International School, a joint venture between the two First
Ladies. It is doubtful that we will ever know all of the
facts in this affair, but the stories of corruption swirling
around the Carthage International School have a ring of truth
to them. Meanwhile, Mrs. Arafat was not shy in sharing with
the Ambassador stinging criticism of President Ben Ali, the
First Lady, and the web of corruption that she says surrounds
them. End Summary.

------------------
Easy Come, Easy Go
------------------

2. (C) On August 7, the GOT's Official Journal contained a
one-sentence announcement of decree number 2007-1976 of
August 2, 2007, revoking the citizenship of Suha Arafat, wife
of the late Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat.
As reported Ref B, the GOT had only granted Tunisian
nationality, by naturalization, to Mrs. Arafat and her 12
year-old daughter Zahwa in September, 2006. (Note: The GOT
did not revoke the citizenship of Mrs. Arafat's daughter.
End Note.) The GOT's decision to revoke the citizenship of
Mrs. Arafat came without warning. In an early July telcon
with the Ambassador, Mrs. Arafat gave no indication that
anything was amiss. Indeed, she indicated that she would
like to meet with the Ambassador when she returned from her
vacation in Malta later in the summer. Nor were there any
distress signals in Ref A conversation with Mrs. Arafat,
which also took place in early summer.

3. (C/NF) In a mid-October telcon with the Ambassador, Ms.
Arafat blamed her ouster on the personal animus of First Lady
Leila Ben Ali. "I can't believe what she's has done to me,"
Arafat exclaimed, "I've lost everything!" She charged that
all of her properties in Tunisia had been confiscated, even
by falsifying documents transferring ownership. (Note: It
is rumored that Mrs. Arafat had invested -- and lost -- some
2.5 million euros in the Carthage International School. End
Note.) In addition, she said, her friends and colleagues in
Tunisia, including her banker, had also come under pressure.
"Anyone who supports me is punished."

----------------------------------------
But, Why?: The School Theory, Version I
----------------------------------------

4. (C/NF) Mrs. Arafat attributed her ouster to her falling
out with First Lady Leila Ben Ali over the Carthage
International School, a new, private, for-profit school, of
which they had been co-owners. According to Mrs. Arafat's
version of events, the dispute stemmed from Leila Ben Ali's
decision to force the closure of the Bouebdelli school (also
known as by the name of its parent group, Le Fondation Louis
Pasteur), a highly respected private school, from which many
of Tunisia's elite have graduated. (Note: The Bouebdelli
school was notified in mid-May that the Minister of Education
had ordered it to close, ostensibly for failure to comply
with registration regulations. Public outcry ensued, fueled
in part by a petition and letter-writing campaign organized
by parents of Bouebdelli schoolchildren. Many local and
international media reports criticized the decision to close
the school as a flagrant attempt to stifle potential
competition of the International School of Carthage. The
fact that parents of Bouebdelli schoolchildren were
encouraged to enroll their children at the Carthage school
only served to fuel these charges, as did the August 29
Presidential decree in which President Ben Ali granted
1,794,600 Tunisian Dinars (approximately US $ 1.5 million) to
the Carthage School, an estimated 25 percent of its operating
budget.)

5. (C/NF) Mrs. Arafat asserted that Leila Ben Ali had

TUNIS 00001489 002 OF 003


overreached in the decision to force the Bouebdelli School to
close. She claimed that she had tried to convince the
Tunisian First Lady that "what we are doing is unethical,"
and that competition ultimately would be healthy for the new
school. Their arguments over this issue continued to
escalate, according to Mrs. Arafat, culminating in the
decision to revoke her citizenship while she was on vacation
in Malta. Mrs. Arafat told the Ambassador that she intends
to remain in Malta, where her brother serves as Palestinian
Ambassador, but that she hopes to spend Christmas in the
Palestinian Territories.

-----------------------------------------
But Why?: Version II of the School Theory
-----------------------------------------

6. (C/NF) Other rumors have circulated with a different spin
on the school story. According to this theory, it was Mrs.
Arafat who overreached, not Leila Ben Ali. Specifically, it
is said that Mrs. Arafat convinced the Ministry of Education
to force the closure of the Bouebdelli School. She
reportedly did so by invoking the name of Mrs. Ben Ali.
Critically, though, according to this theory, Leila Ben Ali
was not aware that her name was being invoked. Thus, the
Tunisian First Lady was incensed when she learned about the
school's closure -- and her alleged role in that decision --
in the highly critical pieces in the local and international
media. (Comment: The fact that the Bouebdelli School did
not reopen, even after the revocation of Suha Arafat's
citizenship, would seem to cast doubt on the accuracy of this
theory. End Comment.)

------------------------------------
But Why?: An Array of Other Theories
------------------------------------

7. (C/NF) Plenty of other theories have stoked the rumor mill
in the Suha Arafat affair. One well-connected Palestinian
resident in Tunisia told EmbOff that what sealed Mrs.
Arafat's fate was that on a recent visit to Tripoli, she had
asked Libyan Leader Qaddafi for money. Qaddafi had readily
provided a hand-out, but he reportedly subsequently called
President Ben Ali to chastise him for failing to provide
adequately for the widow of the late Palestinian President.
Ben Ali's acute embarrassment, so the story goes, quickly
turned to wrath. It was not long before Mrs. Arafat's
citizenship was revoked. Another theory holds that Suha
Arafat was ousted because she had absconded with a
significant amount of the first family's assets. Finally, in
the face of persistent rumors that Mrs. Arafat had secretly
married Belhassen Trabelsi, brother of the Tunisian First
Lady, some commentators chalked up the whole ordeal to the
failure of that relationship.

---------------------------------------
Scathing Commentary on the First Family
---------------------------------------

8. (C/NF) No doubt as a result of her tribulations, Mrs.
Arafat was not shy about sharing with the Ambassador her
negative impressions of President Ben Ali, his wife, and her
family members, whom, she said, collectively represent a web
of corruption. Drawing on her close contact with the first
family over the past several years, she made several
allegations, among them the following:

-- President Ben Ali remains weakened by his battle with
cancer (NFI);

-- President Ben Ali spends all his time playing with his son
and following him around the residence;

-- President Ben Ali simply does what his wife asks him to do;

-- Leila Ben Ali and her family are stealing everything of
value in the country;

-- Leila Ben Ali believes that she will succeed her husband
as President of Tunisia;

-- The members of Ben Ali's extended family can do whatever
they want with impunity, including the falsification of
documents;

-- Leila Ben Ali dropped the American curriculum that had
been planned for the Carthage school because she
fundamentally wants nothing to do with Americans.

-------

TUNIS 00001489 003 OF 003


Comment
-------

9. (C/NF) It is doubtful that we will ever know all of the
facts in the Suha Arafat affair, or, for that matter in the
Bouebdelli School/Carthage International School matter.
Clearly, having been stripped of her Tunisian citizenship and
deprived of her properties here, Suha Arafat has an ax to
grind with the Ben Ali clan, so her allegations must be taken
with a big grain of salt. Although difficult to prove, there
is a certain ring of truth to the stories of corruption
swirling around the school issue. While it is not clear who
was behind the Bouebdelli closure, the ready-made pool of
students for whom Bouebdelli was no longer an option was
certainly convenient for filling the classrooms in the
Carthage School's opening year. Indeed, during a
mid-September visit to the Carthage School, MgmtCouns learned
that the school is filled to capacity. Beyond that, no
school in recent memory has been constructed so quickly, had
municipally provided access roads, street signs, and traffic
lights installed so efficiently, or had such ease in getting
certified (although it has not yet received the French
accreditation the Bouebdelli School had). Nor is it common
practice for the GOT to so generously subsidize a for-profit
educational institution. Finally, it must be noted that the
school affair, while rather blatant, is not an isolated case
of favoritism and corruption. We will continue to follow
this issue and report septel on other corruption charges.
End Comment.
GODEC

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