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06TUNIS2586 2006-10-17 15:10:00 CONFIDENTIAL//NOFORN Embassy Tunis
Cable title:  

TUNISIAN INTERFERENCE IN U.S. EMBASSY ACTIVITIES:

Tags:   PREL PGOV PHUM TS 
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1. (C/NF) Summary. According to Foreign Minister Abdallah's
Chef de Cabinet, recent charges of GOT interference in
Embassy activities were either baseless fabrications or the
result of a misinterpretation of events by Post. Alternating
between feigning shock, surprise, anger, and hurt, Atallah
blamed the Embassy for creating a bilateral problem by
documenting its complaints against the GOT. He flatly denied
that there has been any GOT policy to hinder Embassy
activities. Atallah readily admitted, however, that he had
no explanation for the most egregious instance of GOT
interference -- the forcible blocking of EmbOffs from
participating in a meeting with representatives of a local
branch of an authorized NGO (Ref B). Atallah tried to chalk
up such instances to GOT bureaucratic or security procedures,
suggesting that they were somehow analogous to the hardships
he experienced as an Arab Ambassador in Washington post-9/11.
End Summary.



2. (C/NF) Hatem Atallah, Chef de Cabinet of Foreign Minister
Abdallah (and former Ambassador to the United States),
summoned the Charge on October 13 to convey the GOT rebuttal
of U.S. complaints about Tunisian interference in Embassy
activities (reftels). Atallah was joined by DG for the
Americas and Asia Ghazi Jomaa, and Deputy Americas Director
Moez Sinaoui. Charge was accompanied by Pol/EconCouns.
Embassy has faxed to NEA/MAG a copy of the non-paper Atallah
provided at the meeting.



--------------------------


Deny, Deny, Deny


--------------------------





3. (C/NF) Atallah opened the 90-minute meeting with a
declaration that he "totally rejected" recent U.S. complaints
of GOT interference and harassment. (Note: Post had earlier
provided MFA DG for the Americas a sanitized non-paper of the
catalogue of GOT actions that appeared in Ref C. End Note.)
Systematically working his way through the U.S. list of
complaints, Atallah had an answer for each, drawing from the
following explanations: (A) The U.S. allegations were
fabrications that "did not conform to reality;" (B) The
instances in question were "minor, isolated" incidents in the
grand scheme of the bilateral relationship; (C) The matter
amounted to a question of interpretation, and the United
States had misinterpreted GOT intentions; or (D) The actions
in question simply reflected GOT bureaucratic or security
procedures. Atallah feigned shock and surprise that Post had
taken offense at the GOT's "procedures," noting for example,
that it was standard practice for the GOT to require
Diplomatic Notes for meetings at all "public institutions,"
which, he said, included institutions of higher learning.
Time and again, Atallah sought to deflect criticism of GOT
behavior by changing the subject to the various forms of
bureaucratic frustrations that he had faced as Tunisian
Ambassador in Washington, such as canceled meetings with
Members of Congress, the requirement that he send diplomatic
notes to the State Department's Tunisia Desk to get Executive
branch meetings (sic), or worse, being a Tunisian official
traveling through U.S. airports after September 11, 2001.



--------------------------


A Few Holes in the Argument


--------------------------





4. (C/NF) Charge took issue with Atallah's excuses, pointing
out, among other things, that EmbOffs' being forcibly
prevented by police from participating in a meeting with
representatives of an authorized NGO (Ref B) was neither a
fabrication or a minor incident, and it was certainly not a
question of interpretation. Atallah still had no explanation
for this transgression -- "What can I tell you (arms spread
wide, shrugging) I don't know the details." Charge also
contested the assertion that the incidents in question were
"isolated;" noting that the accumulation of incidents would
seem to suggest otherwise.



5. (C/NF) Moreover, he said, the appearance of editorials in
three different Arabic newspapers on September 19 denigrating
as traitors civil society activists who deal with superpower
Embassies was no coincidence, but rather was indicative of a
concerted campaign of intimidation (Ref C). In both the
GOT's non-paper responding to U.S. complaints, and in the

meeting with Atallah, the MFA contented that the GOT
exercises no control over the editorial lines of Tunisian
newspapers. The non-paper went even further, stating that
the columns in question represented nothing more than an
"echo of a roundtable organized earlier by the Embassy that
had aroused the interest of the press." (Note: Indeed, the
Embassy had organized a human rights roundtable the previous
week. The press was not informed of the roundtable, but the
GOT was aware of it. This is the first time the GOT has
drawn any linkage between that roundtable and the offending
editorials. End Note.) Charge dismissed the notion of
editorial freedom, noting that the Embassy had heard
differently from newspaper editors. Besides which, he
continued, showing his interlocutors a copy of a March, 2006
Tunisian newspaper account, several Tunisian cabinet
ministers had given speeches earlier in the year that made
the same point as the offensive editorials (Ref D). Noting
that the Embassy enjoys cordial relations with the MFA,
Charge pointedly asked whether there were other elements of
the GOT that had problems with the U.S. Embassy's activities.




--------------------------


Comment


--------------------------





6. (C/NF) As the meeting wore on, it became increasingly
evident that Atallah was far less bothered by the U.S.
charges than he was about the fact that we had put them on
paper. As far as he was concerned, the U.S. Embassy had
created a problem by documenting its complaints; he was not
prepared to concede that the U.S. non-paper catalogued, but
did not create the problems. While the Embassy certainly got
the MFA's attention with the non-paper, it remains to be seen
whether the MOI, which is clearly responsible for the lion's
share of these actions, will change its behavior. In this
regard, it was disappointing that the normally well-prepared
and responsive Atallah still had no explanation for the
October 5 police blocking of EmbOffs' NGO meeting, despite
the fact that a week had passed since Ref A incident.
BALLARD