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Cablegate: Senior Got Official Calls for "New Page" in U.S.-Tunisia Relations


DE RUEHTU #0113/01 0471409
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C O N F I D E N T I A L TUNIS 000113


E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/28/2020


Classified by Ambassador Gordon Gray for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (C) Summary: Saida Chtoui, one of two de facto deputy
ministers in Tunisia´s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told
visiting DAS Sanderson on January 26 that the U.S. and
Tunisia "have a lot of work to do together," that Tunisia´s
new Foreign Minister is "open minded," and that Tunisia wants
to "build stronger political relations" with the U.S. Chtoui
maintained that Tunisia was striving to find the right
balance among security, development, and democratic process,
and insisted Tunisia deserved more credit for its social
achievements. Responding to DAS Sanderson´s expression of
concern about human rights and a recent crackdown against
independent journalism, Chtoui dismissed dissident
journalists as poseurs and profiteers and complained,
relatively mildly, about Tunisia´s mention in the Secretary´s
January 21 speech on Internet freedom. This prompted a
spirited exchange on freedom of expression, in which Chtoui
linked moves in the U.S. to ban Al-Manar TV to Tunisia´s
censorship of "dangerous" websites. The Ambassador openly
wondered what threat was posed by sites such as Freedom
House. At the close of what remained throughout a friendly
discussion, Chtoui pledged Tunisia´s full support for U.S.
efforts to revive Middle East peace talks (reftel). End

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2. (C) DAS Sanderson met for one hour on January 26 with
Saida Chtoui, the veteran Tunisian diplomat now serving as
Secretary of State for Asia and the Americas (Deputy Minister
equivalent) at the conclusion of her January 25-27 visit to
Tunis. Chtoui rolled out a rhetorical red carpet for her
guest, opening the meeting with the declaration that Tunisia
seeks "stronger political ties" and would like to "open a new
page" with the U.S. Indicating Tunisia would welcome more
high level USG visits, Chtoui asked about "her friend"
Assistant Secretary Feltman, and noted that President Ben Ali
holds Under Secretary Burns in very high regard and "really
enjoys talking with him.... Our new Foreign Minister is very
open minded," Chtoui continued, "...there is much work we can
do together. We feel positive change with the arrival of the
new U.S. Ambassador. Things are changing and moving

--------------------------------------------- ---
Sanderson: Need for Candid, Substantive Dialogue
--------------------------------------------- ---

3. (C) Welcoming the positive tone of Chtoui´s opening
remarks, DAS Sanderson observed that, as longtime friends,
the U.S. and Tunisia should not hesitate to speak frankly
about differences of opinion, which are normal in any
relationship. "There are no taboos," Chtoui replied; we are
ready to work together. DAS Sanderson said the U.S. was
concerned about human rights in Tunisia, and particularly
recent actions against independent journalists that raised
doubts about the freedom of the press. We would also like to
discuss the issue of trafficking in persons, and we are
hoping the GOT will follow though on its committment to
arrange a meeting for the Embassy with the designated point
of contact in the Ministry of Justice, DAS Sanderson added.

4. (C) Reprising a familiar theme, Chtoui said the GOT had
two years ago made a great effort to provide the U.S. with a
comprehensive dossier of information about the Tunisia´s
legal framework and protections concerning TIP, but that none
of this was factored into the final report. This ommission
was demoralizing to the GOT, Chtoui asserted. (Note: In
fact, much of the GOT´s information on laws that could be
used to prosecute human traffickers was incorporated into the
Embassy´s submission to the Department on TIP. End note.)
The GOT was nonetheless willing to take up the subject again
with the USG, "provided there is a prospect for change,"
Chtoui allowed.

5. (C) The USG places a high premium on the accuracy of its
reports, DAS Sanderson underlined, and it is for this reason
we would like to have candid, substantive dialogue with the
GOT - on TIP, and on broader human rights topics. This is an
opportunity for the GOT to clarify its views and actions, DAS
Sanderson added.

Dissidents as Poseurs

6. (C) "We know we are not perfect," Chtoui responded, but
the U.S. should not take all the anti-GOT criticism it hears
at face value. She questioned the credentials of Taoufik Ben
Brik (a journalist jailed in November) and activist Sihem
Bensidrine (a high profile dissident perennially clashing
with the GOT), claiming they were much better at posing for
international sympathizers than in actually practicing their
trades. However well-known and popular they may be abroad,
in Tunisia "no one is above the law," Chtoui insisted.

7. (C) The small minority of GOT critics who get so much
international attention do not represent the views of most
Tunisians, who benefit from living in a country where 80
percent of the citizens are middle class, Chtoui claimed.
Tunisians enjoy a better standard of living than either
Algerians or Libyans, even though each country is
considerably richer in resources. Tunisia is taking
extraordinary steps to generate jobs for its university
graduates, even sharing payroll costs with employers in some
cases. Poverty rates in Tunisia are more comparable to
countries in Europe than to countries in Africa, Chtoui

Internet Freedom

8. (C) We expect candid discussions with the USG, but
demonizing Tunisia is not fair, Chtoui emphasized. There may
be room for improvement, but the subject of human rights in
Tunisia "is not a disaster." Mentioning Tunisia as one of
the worst countries in the world for Internet freedom does
not seem fair, Chtoui continued. Tunisia was one of the
first countries in either Africa or the Arab world to
encourage the growth of Internet use. "Where does the truth
really lie?" Chtoui asked rhetorically. Tunisia is situated
in the middle of a dangerous region, Chtoui declared, and had
a duty to take security precautions. Tunisia is struggling
to find the right balance between security, economic
development, and democratic freedoms, she asserted.

9. (C) "Finding the right balance is an ongoing, difficult
process," DAS Sanderson allowed. "As leaders and citizens,
we need to weigh how much we are giving up," as we make
security decisions, she added. The U.S. learned, following
September 11, that too many controls can be
counterproductive, DAS Sanderson observed. If the GOT feels
the Secretary´s remarks about the Internet were not accurate,
we should talk about it, DAS Sanderson underlined, "our
concern is that Tunisia´s admirable progress in some areas
could be undermined by its lack of progress in other areas."

10. (C) Chtoui rejected the notion that freedom of expression
does not exist in Tunisia. Several licensed Arabic language
newspapers, such as those belonging to the former communist
party (Al-Tajdid), receive GOT subsidies, even as they
regularly level criticism at the government. At the same
time, "we fully understand," Chtoui asserted, U.S. moves to
ban the broadcasts of Hezbollah-controlled Al-Manar TV, which
it considers incitement. For the same reason, Tunisia needs
to take action to block sites that incite hatred and threaten
stability, she maintained. "Even in the U.S., freedom of
speech is not absolute," the Ambassador interjected, "you
can´t yell ´fire´ in the middle of a crowded movie house.
But it is difficult to see what particular security threat is
posed to Tunisia by Freedom House´s website. There should be
a place for mainstream criticism," the Ambassador

11. (C) "Freedom House does not have a balanced attitude.
They are very biased and only listen to Tunisia´s critics.
They don´t listen to those who point out our achievements,"
Chtoui replied. "I hate Al-Jazeera (whose site is also
blocked in Tunisia). They just destroy people day and night
in a hateful dialogue, if we can call it dialogue." The
Ambassador said the USG distinguishes between Al-Jazeera,
which is often biased, and Al-Manar, which is the arm of a
terrorist group. There is a difference between journalistic
bias and incitement to violence, the Ambassador stressed.
12. (C) Wrapping up the conversation, DAS Sanderson and the
Ambassdor emphasized that the U.S. would like to engage in a
sustained, practical, non-adversarial dialogue with Tunisia,
and would like to move forward various items on the bilateral
agenda, including a resumption of TIFA talks and the
conclusion of an open skies agreement. Chtoui said the GOT
welcomed these efforts, adding "you can rely on my personal

13. (U) This message was cleared by DAS Sanderson.

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