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The Amilcar Notes – 9: Little Country – Big U.S. Embassy: Tunisia’s Place in U.S. Strategy Toward North Africa….

December 23, 2011

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahdha, the moderate Islamic Party that won 41% of the seats in Tunisia’s October 23, 2011 elections for a Constituent Assembly

1. First love, first protest demonstration

If I had a bit more energy, I would have spent my last day in Tunisia walking down Ave. de la Liberte. I’d walk past the central synagogue where in June 1967 I watched angry crowds trash Jewish shops. Then I’d say one last good bye to `Bourguiba School’ – “L’Institut Bourguiba des Langues Vivantes” where I taught with a group of other Peace Corps volunteers and finally, I’d walk past the radio station to what used to be the old U.S. embassy. There, I would permit myself a few moments of nostalgia. It was in the garden there that I first demonstrated against American foreign policy. Hard to forget, first loves, first protest demonstration (against the Vietnam War and Hubert Humphrey’s presence)

A proud Tunisian…the whole country is proud, very proud that they stood up to Ben Ali and forced him to leave the country; in so doing, it seems that whole country got back its dignity

2. U.S. diplomatic community: Living in an insulated world

The U.S. diplomatic community here hasn’t changed much in half a century – minus a few career diplomats who have learned Arabic and know how to use the Internet. Boring group on the whole who live in their own insulated world, most living in the same plush and guarded neighborhoods, sending their kids to an American school, going to the same restaurants and bars, socializing with the same people, throw in a Frenchman or Brit or two and maybe even a Tunisian!

They might as well be living on Long Island or Los Angeles. Might help explain why the intelligence gathered is often of such low, useless quality. What would be worse, a well functioning U.S. diplomatic corps and intelligence apparatus or a continuation of what we have now?

Still there are some curious developments even in this sterile world.

For example, here in Tunisia one American described the State Department staff as having `one of its ass cheeks in the Defense Department’, oftentimes it is the military attaché and not someone from the Ambassador’s staff, or State Department who makes the strategic diplomatic rounds, showing up at receptions and  parties representing the Stars and Stripes.

A part of a whole post-September 11 militarization of U.S. foreign policy?

The new push to use n.g.o.s, AID for intelligence because they are `on the ground’ rather than the diplomatic corps living in Lalaland?

The never ending confusion between gathering intelligence and doing dirty tricks which has characterized U.S. intelligence operations since the days of Eisenhower?

Foreground: Byzantine (early Christian) ruins. St. Augustine passed by here; Background: The Mosque of Carthage

3. The U.S. Embassy: big embassy for a little country?

The United States has built a new embassy in Tunisia, a real monstrosity. Super-duper modern, and heavily guarded, it is a good ways away from the center where the former one was located. Something is just out of whack. Even viewed from a distance, the American Embassy gives the impression of being a major communications center for U.S. foreign policy in the region, the region being North Africa – or as it called here `the Magreb’ or Arab West. Its size and electronic sophistication seems out of proportion with the embassy’s needs. It begs the question: why such a sprawling, technically sophisticated structure for a country – a major communications center – where both U.S. strategic and military interests are somewhat modest at best?

Looking strictly at U.S. – Tunisian relations, such an important embassy doesn’t especially make sense. Thinking regionally, however, a pattern begins to emerge connecting Tunisia to its neighbors, Libya and Algeria.

Compared with other North African countries, Tunis is a safer place for the United States from whence to watch the probable further implosion of Libya and to monitor the development in nearby Algeria and the Sahara to the south. Tripoli is not a great place for a U.S. embassy. There will be some kind of U.S. diplomatic presence there but because the security situation is so unstable there, all suggestions are that it will be of more modest in nature. Watching the Libyan events from Tunis  presents fewer risks. is.

Tunisians look at Libya with both genuine sympathy for what the Libyans have endured, but also with the prospect of Tunisian dinars in their eyes. Tunisians are, among other things, the ultimate entrepreneurs. They see an opportunity in Libya’s situation; Tunisians talk about both the problems at the border, but also the great economic opportunities that could come from helping Libya – or “Libyas” – get back on its “or their” feet.

Tile work on entrance to villa,Amilcar

4. Tunisia: wedged between Libya and Algeria

But ask about Tunisia’s relations with their western neighbor Algeria, and silence reigns once as it did in the Ben Ali days. It’s the only subject that I stumbled upon here on which people either seemed genuinely ignorant, or about which they did not particularly want to talk. Some say they just don’t know. That is possible; there is very little news here about Algeria. Others make byzantine statements typical like `ahhh, Algeria that is tough one’, `Algeria remains a closed society’ as if speaking about it could land whomever in hot water. Follow up questions are usually brushed aside.

Relations between Tunisian and Algeria have long been tense. They remain limited in nature. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians take their summer vacations in Tunisia every year because the tourist services at the beaches are much better and the political environment more open. Tunisian’s living near the Algerian border cross over frequently – there is no problem for them – taking advantage of cheaper food and especially gasoline; modest but continuous economic, cultural exchanges do take place. There are allegations of drug running and a brisk black market trade, but hard evidence concerning such activities is lacking.

There is little doubt though that the Algerian government felt threatened both by the uprising here in Tunisia that swept away Ben Ali and also the toppling of Khadaffi. If the relations between the Algerian military and Ben Ali were not close, still they had worked out a kind of modus vivendi between them. Algeria would have preferred if Ben Ali remained in power. If change could come to Tunisia and Libya, Algiers reasoned, Algeria might be next in line. Although diplomatic relations between Algeria and Tunisia have recently been re-established, they remain cool.

There were also reports of Algerian security forces actively helping Khadaffi, of Algerian diplomatic efforts in Europe to defend him and of some of the 250,000 security force of Ben Ali being folded into the Algerian security force. But one thing for sure, the Algerians were pre-occupied with Tunisia and refining their approach. Unlike many others in this region, the folks in control of Algeria are strategic thinkers.

Mediterranean: Tunisia is wedged between Algeria and Libya

5. Tunisian protests resonate in Algeria

Mohammed Bouazizi’s immolation on December 17, 2011 had repercussions in Algeria. People took to the streets of Algiers and other major cities, calling for political reforms, jobs, housing and an end to the state of siege which had been in place in the country for twenty years, since 1991.

Already in January and February of 2011 as the regional uprising against poverty and repression spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East, the Algerian government was quick to engage in a form of damage control that others would essentially imitate: combining repression with the promise of massive state socio-economic programs and with a slight loosening of the screws on repression and freedom of expression. The government threw billions of dollars in promises of jobs and social programs at the protesters to dampen the revolutionary fires.  For the moment it seems to have worked.

There is a curious parallel between how Algeria managed to dampen its social unrest and how the Saudi’s are doing it: same same…`kif kif’ as they say here: they throw billions at jobs and social programs. Both countries seem to be utilizing a similar if not identical mass containment strategy and that possibly that is not accidental: Make economic concessions as a means of maintaining political power at all costs.  If the people continue to demonstrate, offer even more. If the demonstrations persist, crush the movement in a manner which they will never forget, the goal being to make the price of freedom so high that it will not be worth the cost in human suffering and pain.

The threat of a blood bath is not far from the surface in both countries. The memory of Algerians horrific civil war in the 1990s is still very much alive here as well. It was a factor in the social movement’s caution. In Saudi Arabia, it is enough to remind the people that a government that would cut off someone’s hand for robbery or stone a woman for marriage infidelity would not hesitate to crush a social movement that challenges the free ride the Saudi royal family has so long enjoyed at the expense of the Saudi people. Imagine the body parts they would cut off for political subversion!

Falling from the heights. Will Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi return to Tunisia to stand trial?

6. Algeria: king pin to U.S. North Africa Strategy

In North Africa, Tunisia is not the king pin of U.S. strategy. Although it is hardly publicized here in the U.S., that honor falls to Algeria, `The Magreb’s Prussia’. The strategic alliances between Algerian government – most especially its military and security apparatus – and the United States (through AFRICOM/U.S. Special Forces) have been growing over the past decade, although the exact nature of the arrangement remains hidden in the deeper fog of the war on terrorism.

Improving relations with Algeria started in Washington sometime around the turn of the millennium after it was clear that the Algerian military-security apparatus there had survived the Civil War there in the 1990s both intact and in power. A key figure in building the relationship on the U.S. side has been Daniel Benjamin, Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the Department of State. A closed regional conference on combating terrorism cemented in mid November of last year cemented the relations.

What lies at the heart of this quiet but growing alliance?

Each side gets something a little different from the relationship. Algerian natural gas supplies to the U.S. have increased and that is a part of the equation. But  it is the strategic cooperation which is even more important and is for the United States nothing short of a strategic bonanza. Improved relations offer the prospect of access and/or control of strategic resources from Algeria to Nigeria – two key African oil producing countries (although more than oil and natural gas is involved). As the United States struggles with China, India and many of its supposed allies to corner the market on these resources, this access is indispensible to U.S. interests and its continued role as a hegemonic (if weakened) power.

For the Algerian military-security apparatus, its power base is strengthened to have the U.S. as a regional military ally.  What it seems to want most of all is high tech toys – drones, sophisticated listening devices – the kind of stuff that makes militaries the world over drool or get a wet spot on their pants. Beyond that, the improved relations with the United States gives the Algerian government a bit more leverage in its dealing with the two other power bases whose interests it must take into account – France in specific and the European Community in general (which have slightly different if overlapping agendas) .

Greek Orthodox Chapel – Tunis. There used to be large Greek, Maltese, Italian and Jewish populations in Tunisia. Today they are much smaller, although the new government has pledged to honor their rights and defend their presence in the country

7. Tunisia: Communications Center for the United States in North Africa?

This U.S.-Algerian relationship is also the key to understanding U.S. Tunisian relations as well.

Although contacts with Algeria are far more important to the U.S. than its Tunisian ties, a high tech U.S. embassy in Algiers might not be such a good idea in part because it could become a very good target for terrorist attacks. Nor is a major U.S. military presence in Algeria good for Algeria’s `radical’ image. Too many risks, better the friendship be more subtle for all concerned, not secret necessarily, just low keyed and downplayed.

There is a certain comparison between how the U.S. deals with Saudi Arabia, an old strategic ally and Algeria, a new one. A large military U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia did not turn out to be a good idea. In the 1990s after the first Gulf War, the U.S. tried a quiet, unostentatious military build-up in Saudi Arabia but was forced out by several Al Qaeda bombings (and subsequent exposure) of U.S. military headquarters.

Being flexible and listening carefully to Washington’s good friends, the Saudi royal family, the United States moved its operational and communications base to nearby Qatar, which has worked out much better. Qatar is a weird place in a way…a major U.S. military base with liberal Arabic cable tv stations called Al Jazeera which is probably part of this strange mix in some way (but let’s leave that aside for the moment).

a small passage way in the Jewish quarter of Tunis’ old medina. The new president, Moncef Marzouki, meeting with Tunisia’s chief rabbi, invited those Tunisian Jews who left the country to return once again to live there

8. Tunisia: The Qatar of the Magreb?

Think of Tunisia as essentially being “The Qatar of the Magreb”.  Tunisia, for all its problems (collapsing economy, political instability) is still more stable than Libya and has a much less explosive presence in Tunisia than it would in Algeria. Voila! Ok…but move it out of the more vulnerable downtown area just in case.

True there is no U.S. military build up in Tunisia, nor do I expect that there will be. It is not necessary, with a major U.S. naval presence in the Mediterranean, big U.S. bases in Italy and on the Greek island of Crete, the United States, could if necessary, move into Tunisia quite rapidly. Instead, Tunisia is a communications center, a place for processing information from all of North Africa and the Sahara. The Obama Administration’s main concern in Tunisia centers around maintaining the security of the embassy. Economic relations are not irrelevant, but are less important.

In a world of satellites and advanced electronics which can not only follow a person’s actions but almost read their minds (to say nothing of their emails) what can’t be done in Algiers- super sophisticated U.S. embassy including a massive regional listening post – can more than likely be accomplished in Tunis.

The political forces that have come to power in Tunisia since the collapse of the Ben Ali government are glad to have improved relations with the Unitede States and believe they have nothing to lose in such an arrangement. Tunisia wants closer ties with the U.S., to balance off French and Italian influences (that have yielded very little).

Both countries had a shared interest in seeing Ben Ali bite the dust but for different reasons. It is possible that one of the reasons that the Obama Administration supported Ben Ali’s removal was to have a government in place in Tunis that would protect U.S. interests more than Ben Ali was willing to do. It turns out that Ben Ali’s relations with Washington, especially during periods when Democrats have been in the White House (Clinton, Obama) have been strained.

The Tunisians hope for trade and investment. I am not so sure much will come on that front. It may but the global economic crisis and growing weakness of the U.S. financial sector suggests progress might be slow. Finally from a security point of view, it is a plus for the new government. Should the Salafist offensive (Islamic fundamentalist movement) now in Tunisia grow beyond a certain point and threaten state power, one can imagine that the United States will  not idly sit by. It appears the Obama Administration is already `advising’ Rachid Ghannouchi and his Ennahdha Party on that score. That is what I read into the award Ghannouchi received in Washington DC and his quick post election visit to the USA.

Another curious thing is that as the roles of Qatar and Tunisia are evolving along parallel lines visavis the United States at least, that the cooperation between the two countries is expanding. Qatar has promised Tunisia billions in economic aid. The Qataris are far more likely to deliver on their promises than other countries. Finally there is the curious connection between the two in terms of freedom of speech. Whatever else Tunisians might not get from their revolution, they have, through their blood and tears won a freedom of speech and created a social movement to defend it, that will I believe, endure for quite a while into the future. It runs deep. In Qatar there is Al Jazeera. Curious.


The Amilcar Notes 1 – Zine Ben Ali’s Sorry Legacy: Repression, Torture and Death

The Amilcar Notes 2 – Tunisia: Emerging Democracy or Just Frills?

The Amilcar Notes 3 – Tunisia: The Forgotten Socio-Economic Crisis

The Amilcar Notes 4 – Tunisia and the New Islamic Politics

The Amilcar Notes 5 – The U.S. Tunisian Experiment: New Direction in U.S-Tunisian Politics?

The Amilcar Notes 6 – Tunisia Installs New Constituent Assembly

The Amilcar Notes 7 – Tunisia’s Jews – `Now ‘and `Then’

The Amilcar Notes 8 – Tunisia’s Jews – `Now’ and `Then’ – Part Two

The Amilcar Notes 10 – Remembering Farhad Hached: An Afternoon with `We Love Kerkennah’

12 Comments leave one →
  1. elMisses permalink
    December 23, 2011 9:21 pm

    I enjoy reading Mr Prince’s commentary on Tunisia and the greater Maghreb. But I have a hard time believing it as there are no sources cited. Where does Mr Prince get his information?…some of it is downright shocking and rather unbelievable. Being able to conceive of an underground cushy relationship between the US and Algeria is almost impossible. I’d really appreciate some sources for the information in this blog.

    • December 24, 2011 7:11 am

      hi mary…

      there is nothing `underground’ about the u.s.-algeria strategic alliance.. google daniel benjamin and algeria and all kinds of stuff will come to the surface. also go the website of the algerian embassy in the u.s. for verification..look at their press statements.there is a difference between the relationship being `downplayed’ and it being secret. both countries, for different reasons, don’t want to emphasize the relationship, but both countries, formally and informally acknowledge it.

      cheers, rob p.


  1. Africa Oil & Gas News | Deep Prospect
  2. The Amilcar Notes – 1…Zine al Abedine Ben Ali’s Sorry Legacy: Repression, Torture and Death « Rob Prince's Blog
  3. The Amilcar Notes – 2 …Tunisia, emerging democracy…or just the frills? « Rob Prince's Blog
  4. The Amilcar Notes – 3… Tunisia – The Forgotten Socio-Economic Crisis « Rob Prince's Blog
  5. The Amilcar Notes – 4…Tunisia and the `New’ Islamic Politics « Rob Prince's Blog
  6. The Amilcar Notes – 5: The U.S. Tunisian Experiment: New Direction For U.S. Middle East Foreign Policy? « Rob Prince's Blog
  7. The Amilcar Notes – 6..Tunisia installs a new government, the constituent assembly « Rob Prince's Blog
  8. The Amilcar Notes – 7 : Tunisia’s Jews, `Now’ and `Then’ (Part One) « Rob Prince's Blog
  9. The Amilcar Notes – 8: Tunisia’s Jews ‘Now’ and ‘Then’…(Part Two) « Rob Prince's Blog
  10. The Amilcar Notes 10 …Remembering Farhat Hached: An Afternoon with `We Love Kerkennah’ « Rob Prince's Blog

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