Last week, history was made as enormous street protests toppled Tunisia’s autocratic leader President Zine El Abadine Ben Ali, marking the first time in modern history that an autocratic Arab leader was forced to step down following pro-democracy protests. Reactions from across the globe have generally been positive, with some commentators even believing that it could be the start of a wave of pro-democracy revolutions across the region.
Yet as the world celebrates the downfall of an autocratic leader, it’s important to remember that just a few years ago, high-ranking officials in the Bush Administration were moving to increase links between the United States and Tunisia and downplay human rights concerns. As Al Jazeera’s Imran Garda notes, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Bush Administration officials are “admirers” of Ben Ali, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said the country provided “constructive leadership in the world":
It is worth rewinding and noting some choice words that former US secretary of state Colin Powell had to say about the country when he visited in December 2003. “Our bilateral relationship is very, very strong,” said Powell. “We are great admirers of Tunisia and the progress that has been achieved under president Ben Ali’s leadership.” [...]
A visit to Tunisia by defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in February 2006 proves even more revealing: “We have a very long relationship with Tunisia,” Rumsfeld remarked after the meetings. “Tunisia is a moderate Muslim nation that has been and is today providing very constructive leadership in the world. The struggle that’s taking place within that faith is a serious one, an important one. There’s a very small number of violent extremists on the one side against a broad, overwhelming majority of people who are moderate.”
Additionally, Rumsfeld, during a visit in 2006 seeking greater ties to Tunisia — where “freedoms of the press, association, and expression [were] extremely restricted” and much electoral opposition was outlawed — was quoted by the Associated Press as calling the country a “democracy“:
It should be noted that while high-officials in the Bush administration continued to lavish praise on Tunisia’s autocratic leader and seek closer ties to the country, American diplomatic staff bravely documented much of the government’s corruption and abuses towards its people. In a leaked American embassy cable dated June 23rd, 2008, an embassy staffer wrote that “the excesses of President Ben Ali’s family…inspire outrage” among Tunisians and that the “lack of transparency and accountability that characterize Tunisia’s political system similarly plague the economy, damaging the investment climate and fueling a culture of corruption.”