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Cablegate: Sceensetter for Codel Meek


DE RUEHTU #1178/01 3291642
P 241642Z NOV 08




E.O. 12958: N/A


1. (SBU) Embassy Tunis warmly welcomes Congressman Meek and
accompanying delegation to Tunis December 5 - 7, 2008. In a
difficult region, Tunisia is stable and moderate, with a
record of economic and social progress. The Tunisian
government delivers education, health care, housing,
infrastructure and security to its population. Tunisia has a
diversified economy and enjoys one of the highest standards
of living on the continent. It is a model for the region on
women's rights. Politically, however, the country is
dominated by a single party, the Democratic Constitutional
Rally (RCD). Political freedoms are tightly controlled and
human rights are a concern. Terrorism poses a threat to the
country. Tunisian government officials may wish to discuss
the latest political, economic and security issues in the
US-Tunisian bilateral relationship, as well as regional
questions. In this cable, Embassy Tunis provides background
information for your visit. End Summary.

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The Bilateral Relationship

2. (SBU) Your visit takes place in the context of
long-standing and generally positive bilateral relations.
The United States was the first Western power to recognize an
independent Tunisia in 1956 and we have provided over US $6
billion in assistance over the years. Tunisia has had
several high-level US visits recently: Secretary Rice
visited September 6; Congressional visits include CODELs
McCullom, Boehner and Cramer in 2008; and CODELs Tanner,
Costello, Jackson-Lee, and Inouye in 2007. AUSTR Shaun
Donnelly, the State Department,s Coordinator for
Counterterrorism Dell Dailey, NEA Assistant Secretary C.
David Welch, and AFRICOM Commander General William Ward also
visited Tunisia in 2008.

Socio-Economic Context

3. (SBU) Tunisia proudly -- and justifiably -- calls itself a
"country that works." Despite Tunisia's relatively small
economy and lack of natural resources, the Tunisian
government provides education, health care, housing,
infrastructure and security to its population. Tunisian
women enjoy more rights and opportunities than in any other
Arab country. The GOT has also put a strong emphasis on the
importance of education, and the literacy rate is
comparatively high at 74 percent.

4. (U) Tunisia has the most diversified economy in the region
and enjoys one of the highest standards of living on the
continent. The country does not have large reserves of
hydrocarbons like its neighbors Algeria and Libya, but has
prospered under long-standing government policies to
diversify its economy by developing manufacturing industries
for export and promoting tourism. The Government of Tunisia
also seeks to attract foreign direct investment and
strengthen its agricultural sector. Thanks to these
policies, Tunisia's economy has maintained average annual GDP
growth rates of five percent over the past decade. At the
same time, social programs have limited population growth.
GDP per capita in 2007 was approximately US $3,251 (GDP per
capita using purchasing power parity was US $7,427). The
United States and Tunisia signed a Trade and Investment
Framework Agreement (TIFA) in 2002 to strengthen bilateral
economic engagement. The third TIFA Council meeting took
place in Tunis on March 10-11, 2008.

Political Overview

5. (SBU) Tunisia is a constitutional republic with a
population of just over 10 million. Politics are dominated
by a single political party, the Democratic Constitutional
Rally (RCD). Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been President
since 1987, when he replaced President Bourguiba. Although
the GOT has many of the institutions of democracy, it is not
a democracy. Three opposition parties fielded candidates in
the October 2004 presidential election; official results
indicated that President Ben Ali won approximately 94 percent
of the registered popular vote. The official turnout was
reportedly higher than 90 percent of registered voters,
although there were indications that voter turnout figures
were inflated. In August 2008, Ben Ali declared his
candidacy for a fifth term in office. National elections -
both presidential and legislative - will be held in 2009.

6. (SBU) Tunisia has a bicameral legislature. In addition
to the Chamber of Deputies, a second legislative body, the
Chamber of Advisors, was created in a 2002 referendum
amending the Constitution. The legislature plays a limited
role as an arena for debate on national policy but members do
not introduce bills and legislation presented by the
Executive Branch passes with only minor changes.

7. (SBU) Political liberties remain tightly controlled and
civil society development is restricted. Government
officials say they intend to continue political
liberalization, but at a pace appropriate to Tunisia's level
of development. They underscore their belief that Islamists
pose a serious threat to the country's record of secular and
moderate policies. Tunisia's slow progress on political
reform has been a concern for the US Government in recent
years. Although President Ben Ali has introduced some
reforms in the past two years (pardoning some political
prisoners and lifting a form of censorship for print media),
civil society and human rights groups continue to report many
instances of government harassment, intimidation, and limits
on their activities. Journalists reject the suggestion that
press censorship has ended, and local media usually lacks
meaningful coverage of domestic political issues. In the
2007 Reporters Without Borders Worldwide Press Freedom Index,
Tunisia was ranked 145 out of 169 countries.

Security Situation

8. (SBU) There is a threat of terrorism in Tunisia,
particularly in light of the establishment of al-Qaeda in the
Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM abducted two Austrian tourists
in Tunisia on February 22 and released them in October. In
January 2007, Tunisian security forces disrupted a terrorist
group active in December 2006/January 2007, killing or
capturing many individuals who reportedly planned to carry
out acts of violence in Tunisia. The US Embassy and
personnel in Tunis were reportedly among the group's intended
targets. In 2002, a faction of al-Qaeda claimed
responsibility for an attack on the Ghriba synagogue on the
southern island of Djerba. This attack, in which 20 victims
were killed, was the first al-Qaeda related terrorist attack
after September 11, 2001.

9. (SBU) The Government of Tunisia remains concerned about
signs of increasing Islamic extremism and national security
is a major priority. It places a high value on its historic
and robust military-military relationship with the United
States. In FY 2008, our military assistance was the highest
it has been in recent years, at approximately US $25 million.
Our aid included US $8,345,000 in Foreign Military Financing
(FMF), US $9.98 million in Section 1206 funding for
counter-terrorism equipment, US $4.1 million in assistance
under peacekeeping operations authority, and US $1.7 million
for International Military Education. The Tunisian military
is particularly concerned about its FMF levels, in part
because this is the most flexible form on assistance. It
uses the FMF largely to maintain its aging fleets of
US-origin equipment.

10. (SBU) Helpfully, Tunisia is an active participant in
United Nations peacekeeping missions, including in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC), Ethiopia and
Eritrea. The GOT takes part in NATO seminars and activities,
and we have several joint military exercises annually. The
GOT reciprocated the US Government's past generosity with a
symbolic gesture of two C-130 loads -- some 20 tons -- of
humanitarian assistance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Regional Issues

11. (SBU) Tunisia has been supportive of US efforts on
Israeli-Palestinian peace, is like-minded on Iran, and has an
Embassy in Baghdad. But it rarely leads and usually follows
the Arab League consensus on international and regional
issues. Given its moderate track record, we encourage the
Government of Tunisia to do more to promote regional peace
and security.

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