Viewing cable 06TUNIS55, SUCCESSION IN TUNISIA: FINDING A SUCCESSOR OR FEET FIRST?
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|06TUNIS55||2006-01-09 15:03||2011-01-17 15:03||SECRET||Embassy Tunis|
VZCZCXYZ0003 PP RUEHWEB DE RUEHTU #0055/01 0091514 ZNY SSSSS ZZH P 091514Z JAN 06 FM AMEMBASSY TUNIS TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9506 INFO RUEHAS/AMEMBASSY ALGIERS PRIORITY 7111 RUEHEG/AMEMBASSY CAIRO PRIORITY 1179 RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON PRIORITY 1093 RUEHFR/AMEMBASSY PARIS PRIORITY 1503 RUEHRB/AMEMBASSY RABAT PRIORITY 8035 RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
S E C R E T TUNIS 000055 SIPDIS SIPDIS STATE FOR NEA/MAG - LAWRENCE AND INR PARIS FOR ZEYALONDON FOR TSOUE.O. 12958: DECL: 01/04/2016 TAGS: PGOV PREL TS SUBJECT: SUCCESSION IN TUNISIA: FINDING A SUCCESSOR OR FEET FIRST? REF: A. 05 TUNIS 2265 B. 05 TUNIS 2148 Classified By: AMBASSADOR WILLIAM HUDSON FOR REASONS 1.5 (b) AND (d) ¶1. (S) SUMMARY: In a country that has had only one president for over eighteen years, suddenly and unusually, talk of the post-Ben Ali era is growing. Several senior and well-connected individuals have recently raised Ben Ali’s intentions for the future with Ambassador and other embassy officials. On the heels of Ben Ali’s recent illness (Ref A) and a new law providing for “former presidents” (Ref B), these discussions seem, on the surface, to be more relevant that the usual rumors. While we have no evidence that Ben Ali’s cancer has reached the life-threatening stage or that he is actively contemplating his retirement, there are some interesting scenarios being discussed, including the possibility that Ben Ali may groom a successor to run in the next presidential elections. Given the constitutional framework and the political scene, a successful candidate will likely come from the RCD Politburo. None of the options suggest Tunisia will become more democratic, but the US-Tunisian bilateral relationship is likely to remain unaffected by the departure of Ben Ali. END SUMMARY. ¶2. (S) One of the standard jokes about President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (usually delivered only half in jest) is that he has three goals for his presidency: to stay in power; to stay in power; and to stay in power. Ample evidence supports this view, including a 2002 constitutional amendment that he and the ruling RCD (Democratic Constitutional Rally) party pushed through which eliminated the two-term limit and effectively gave him the right to govern at least until 2014. In recent months, however, increasingly concrete speculation has been voiced by well-placed contacts (and more casual observers) that Ben Ali does not plan to run again and may even step down before his term expires in 2009. ¶3. (S) A Cabinet-level GOT official XXXXXXXXXXXX recently told the Ambassador XXXXXXXXXXXX that Ben Ali wants to avoid the “difficulties” that arose when Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, declined in 1987. At the time, Ben Ali argued that Bourguiba was medically unfit to continue as president, while denouncing Bourguiba’s de facto presidency for life. One way for Ben Ali to ensure a smoother transition would be to groom a replacement and present him as the only viable candidate in 2009. XXXXXXXXXXXX later told the Ambassador that, in fact, Ben Ali does not intend to run again in the 2009 presidential elections. This scenario, while hard to imagine for many who have witnessed first hand Ben Ali’s jealous control of all power in Tunisia, would allow the President to bask in the glory of being the first Arab leader to voluntarily and peacefully leave office. ¶4. (C) Average Tunisians spend more time commenting on Ben Ali’s health and omnipotent rule than the possibility that he may step down. Ben Ali, who has been rumored to have prostate cancer since early 2003, maintains an active schedule and appears healthy; but Tunisians often discuss whether he appears pale, thin or otherwise physically ill. While some people may state their hope that U.S. and European pressure could force Ben Ali to become more democratic or relinquish the presidency, they are at a loss when asked who would succeed him. Ben Ali’s policy of regularly changing ministers and other senior officials has ensured that no individual has widespread support, respect, or even substantial recognition among Tunisians. THE CONSTITUTIONAL SYSTEM ¶5. (C) The significant constitutional changes approved in a May 2002 referendum that allow presidential candidates up to the age of seventy-five led many Tunisians to assume that Ben Ali intends to remain president for life. In Ben Ali’s case, the changes allow him to run in 2009 and serve as president until the 2014 elections, when, at age 79, he will be legally too old to run for reelection. However, many Tunisians still cynically expect Ben Ali to change the constitution again to allow him to continue to serve as president until his ultimate demise. ¶6. (C) The constitutional amendments of 2002 also outlined legal procedures that address presidential illness, incapacity and death. According to the constitution, in the event of a temporary incapacity, the President can delegate some of his powers to the Prime Minister. During this interim period, the PM/acting president cannot dissolve the National Assembly, nor can he make changes to the Cabinet. (Note: During Ben Ali’s four-day October illness, he did not elect to delegate any authorities. End Note.) This system replaces the previous constitutional provisions, which Ben Ali used to remove Bourguiba, in which the Prime Minister was responsible for determining the president’s incapacity based on from seven doctors’ certifications that the president was no longer competent to carry out the functions of his office. ¶7. (C) In the event the President dies in office, resigns or is unable to carry out his duties due to illness or other incapacity, the Constitutional Council would meet to determine if the vacancy of the office was “definitive.” (Note: The nine-member Constitutional Council, which was created in 2001 as part of the above-mentioned constitutional revisions, is generally responsible for reviewing new laws to ensure conformity with the constitution. Four members are appointed by the President, three by the President of the Chamber of Deputies, and three are members based on their government positions: the first president of the Supreme Court, the president of the Administrative Tribunal, and the President of the National Accounting Office.) An absolute majority of the Council would be required to render the presidency vacant. The Council must then advise the presidents of the Chamber of Deputies and the Chamber of Counselors, of this determination, which triggers the “immediate” but temporary investiture of the president of the Chamber of Deputies as interim president. The interim president must organize elections within 60 days, and cannot dissolve the Chamber, change the constitution, change the government, nor stand for election to the Presidency. ¶8. (C) Thus, under the current constitutional dispensation, if Ben Ali were to be “temporarily” incapacitated due to illness, he could turn over a measure of presidential authority to Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi. Ghannouchi, an economist by training, is a respected figure in the “technocratic” mold. If Ben Ali were to die in office, resign for whatever reason, or become so ill he could no longer exercise his functions, the Constitutional Council could declare the Presidency “vacant” and interim authority would fall to Fouad Mebazaa, the current President of the National Assembly. Mebazaa is a long-time ruling RCD party stalwart (a member of the RCD Politburo, a former Minister, and a “survivor” from the Bourguiba era), whose principal task as interim President would be to organize elections and, from an RCD perspective, maintain the party’s hold on power. WHO CAN RUN - AND BE ELECTED ¶9. (C) In order to be eligible to run for the presidency, a candidate must be no older than 75, be a member of a party with at least one member in parliament, and obtain the signatures of 30 deputies and/or mayors. Given the personality-cult status of the opposition parties (several of which are internally fragmented and weak) and their lack of organized platforms or significant membership, it is unlikely any opposition candidate would garner enough strength to seriously challenge an RCD member. It is most likely that the next president would come from within the RCD given its history as Tunisia’s founding party, its grass roots structure, and its interest in stability and continuity. POSSIBLE SUCCESSORS ¶10. (S) Designating a successor may be the only means for Ben Ali to maintain his legacy as the man who brought “blessed change” to Tunisia. However, as he is an expert at shuffling his advisors and cabinet members to prevent any one individual from gaining sufficient political support to become a threat to the President’s rule, it is unclear who this successor might be. Given the legal framework of the presidency, it is expected that the successor would come from the RCD Politburo -- whether handpicked by Ben Ali or following his death. Possible candidates, whose bio info is provided below, include Minister of State, Special Advisor to the President and Official Spokesman Abdelaziz Ben Dhia, Minister of Social Affairs, Solidarity and Tunisians Abroad Ali Chaouch, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, Minister of Defense Kamel Morjane and First Lady Leila Ben Ali. None of these individuals would likely make any significant changes in GOT domestic or foreign policies, at least initially. Minister of State Ben Dhia: Ben Dhia is often mentioned as a possible successor, given his strong position in the palace. Since he was born in 1936, Ben Dhia’s age is the prime obstacle to the likelihood he would be Ben Ali’s successor, as he also would be ineligible to run in the 2014 elections. However, rumored to be equally liked by the President and First Lady, Ben Dhia could act as a placeholder while a younger family member, such as one of Ben Ali’s son-in-laws, gained political power. Ben Dhia’s long history of government service, including under Bourguiba, may give him widespread public support, although his relatively secretive responsibilities in the palace cause some consternation among average Tunisians. These same unknown responsibilities have also supported Ben Dhia’s reputation in Tunisia as an “eminence grise” - the brilliant behind-the-scenes decision maker in the palace. Minister of Social Affairs Chaouch: Ali Chaouch (born in 1948) has held two positions that have given him great exposure to the Tunisian public: as RCD Secretary General from 2000-04, and currently as the Minister of Social Affairs. However, he also occupied the despised position of Minister of Interior, which while it may have given him the background to run a dictatorship, earned him little popularity with the Tunisian public. Prime Minister Ghannouchi: (8/18/1941) A career technocrat and trained economist, Ghannouchi has served as Prime Minister since 1999. Ghannouchi is rumored to have told many that he wishes to leave the GOT but has not had the opportunity. The length of his service as PM also suggests that Ben Ali does not view him as a threat and that he is unlikely to be viewed as a qualified successor. However, average Tunisians generally view him with respect and he is well-liked in comparison to other GOT and RCD officials. First Lady Ben Ali: (10/24/1956) While there are often rumors of Leila’s political ambitions, almost all observers note she does not have sufficient support among the Tunisian public. However, she cannot be ruled out as a possible successor, especially as she is widely believed to be at least partially responsible for many official appointments. If this is true, she has a wide range of political allies throughout Tunisian society that would support her -- even in the face of public disapproval. Minister of Defense Morjane: (5/9/1945) Also affecting the credibility of succession scenarios is an oft-repeated notion that the US is favoring Morjane in the succession race. Morjane, appointed Minister of Defense in August 2005 after years of United Nations service, at one point had USG support for his candidacy to be the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and has been helpful as Minister. However, we know little about his personal politics or ambitions. ¶11. (S) COMMENT. Given the fact that Ben Ali has a dictatorial hold on Tunisia, it is hard to believe that he will voluntarily step down. We wonder that these discussions are not simply a ruse that will bring Tunisians - supporters and critics alike - out in force calling for another Ben Ali term. This would give Ben Ali the necessary cover that he is only responding to public demand for the continuation of his presidency, much as he did following the 2002 referendum that amended the constitution to allow him to run until 2014. However it is interpreted, the mere fact that an increasing number of Tunisians are talking about succession and the end of the Ben Ali era is remarkable. HUDSON