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Diplomats questioned Microsoft deal with Tunisian regime

Local Microsoftie feared to meet Bill Gates empty handed

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Microsoft sold software and training to the armed forces of Tunisia's repressive former regime six years ago, a leaked WikiLeaks cable has revealed. The deal alarmed even the normally flag-waving trade patriots in the US government, according to the cable.

The leaked cable, sent from the US embassy in Tunis in 2006, reports that Microsoft sold 12,000 licences for its software, along with requisite training, to officials running Tunisia's Ministries of Justice and Interior who wished to learn how to use computers and the internet as part of a "fight on crime":

Through a program on cyber criminality, Microsoft will train government officials in the Ministries of Justice and Interior on how to use computers and the internet to fight crime.

Both ministries were instruments of repression under the regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the prime minister who stepped down in January this year after 24 years in power following a wave of protests and deaths. The Ministry of Justice ran the courts and prisons under the Ben-Ali regime while the Interior Ministry was in charge of its police.

It seems Microsoft Tunisia's director general Salwa Smaoui was due to attend the Government Leaders Forum Africa in Cape Town, South Africa, where she was expected to present Bill Gates with the 2006 Tunisia deal. She was apparently concerned about confronting Gates at the event without a government agreement in hand.

Microsoft's co-founder was due to speak at the company's event. At the Government Leaders Forum Africa, also attended by former US president Bill Clinton, Gates expanded at great length about the power of computing to change the lives of people in Africa.

The agreement between Tunisia and Microsoft was eventually signed at the South African forum in July 2006. The deal Smaoui brokered was sold as a "co-operation agreement on e-governance, cybersecurity, intellectual property rights, to help expand the Tunisian IT sector", with Microsoft pledging training for handicapped Tunisians to help them find work in the sector.

Smaoui called it a "win-win" for Microsoft and the government of Tunisia.

However, The US embassy in Tunisia was not as positive. It pointed out that president Ben Ali's wife Leila Ben Ali ran a charity for handicapped Tunisians. The unhappy diplomats said: "In theory, increasing GOT [Government of Tunisia] law enforcement capability through IT training is positive, but given heavy-handed GOT interference in the internet, [the] Post questions whether this will expand GOT capacity to monitor its own citizens. Ultimately, for Microsoft the benefits outweigh the costs."

Microsoft's negotiators also faced flak from the regime over the company's perceived "American-ness", Smaoui said. She claimed she "felt suspicion bordering on hostility during the negotiations" because she was "working for the Americans." ®

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