Clinton's testimony on Tunis attack called into question

Clinton's testimony on Tunis attack called into question
Analysis: Authorities in Tunis have cast doubts over the account of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the attack against the US embassy in 2012.
4 min read
02 November, 2015
Angry protesters stormed the US embassy in Tunis on 14 September 2012 [AFP]

Last week, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified in front of the Congressional Committee over the deadly attack against the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya in 2012.

Her testimony included remarks on the attack against the US embassy in Tunisia on 14 September 2012, which senior Tunisian politicians have contested.

Protests erupted against a fringe US-made film, describing it as insulting to the Prophet Muhammad, in a number of Arab cities across the region on 11 and 12 September 2012. In Tunis, however, protesters ransacked the US embassy on 14 September, and details of how events unfolded remain unclear.

Talking about the Tunis protests, Clinton told the Congressional Committee that Jacob Walles, the US ambassador to Tunisia, and embassy staff, had requested help from Tunisian authorities, but did not receive any reply.

     Clinton's statements were not very accurate
- Adnan Munsir, presidential adviser

Clinton went on to say that calls to the Tunisian government and the interior ministry to protect the embassy and its staff went unanswered as well.

"I called the president, President Marzouki... I said, Mr President, please deploy your presidential guard, at least show that Tunisia will stand with the United States against these protesters over this inflammatory video. To his great credit and to my great relief, that is exactly what he did," Clinton told the committee.

Clinton described the scene at the embassy: "There were thousands of demonstrators on the outside. They were battering down the barriers and the walls around our embassy. They had already set on fire the American school, which is very close to the embassy."

Tunisian response

"Clinton did call President Marzouki," said his former adviser, Adnan Munsir, who was present when the Tunisian president received the call. But "Clinton's statements were not very accurate", added Munsir.

"The former US secretary of state did not request did not request the involvement of the presidential guard, but it was Marzouki who assigned the presidential guard to get involved and protect the American embassy," said Munsir.

Former Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem told al-Araby al-Jadeed that Tunisia was witnessing a period of instability at the time - which was reflected in the security situation, and resulted in the involvement of the presidential guard to protect the US embassy.

"To imply that Ennahdha Movement was responsible is erroneous, as Ennahdha was part of a government coalition and does not bare the responsibility of the [security] lapses that took place that resulted in the storming of the embassy," said Abdessalem.

"One should not differentiate between the presidential guard and the regular security services by insinuating that one party did its job and the other did not," added the former foreign minister.

"The situation at the time required the involvement of the presidential guard, so Marzouki's orders for them to act was not a stroke of genius."

     One should not differentiate between the presidential guard and the regular security services
- Rafik Abdessalem

Ali Laarayed, the former Tunisian prime minister who was minister of interior in 2012, also contested Clinton's account.

He told al-Araby al-Jadeed that while Clinton might have contacted the government and the foreign ministry through official diplomatic channels, the ministry of interior only received a call from Washington two days after the embassy attack.

"The caller was the deputy secretary of state in charge of Middle East affairs at the time, William Burns, who spoke about the embassy attack and the need to coordinate efforts to combat such incidents and prosecute the people responsible," said Laarayed.

The former minister of interior stressed that his ministry made an official apology on behalf of the Tunisian state and informed the United States that Tunisia had done all it could to protect the embassy, and was reviewing where it could make improvements.

"The clashes with protesters were intense and security forces had requested the assistance of an anti-terrorism unit that did its best until the arrival of the presidential guard, which came in at the last moment and helped prevent further damage," said Laarayed.

"Tunisia paid for the damages to the American embassy and communication between the two countries did not cease," added Laarayed.