Tunisia’s struggle against corruption: time to fight, not forgive

People hold Tunisia flag and shout protest slogans during a march held by the movement “Manich Msameh. Chedly Ben Ibrahim/SIPA USA/PA ImagesProtests against an ‘economic
reconciliation law’ are currently drawing attention to Tunisia. Proponents
argue that Tunisia’s economy needs a quick way to deal with past economic
crimes under Ben Ali in order to create a stable climate that would drive
investment. But a grassroots campaign, Manich
I shall
not forgive)
has long mobilised against the bill. It insists that there can be no
reconciliation without holding the perpetrators of economic crimes accountable,
using the instruments that the official transitional justice process in Tunisia

Protests demanding employment and
regional development in the marginalized interior of Tunisia are to a large
part triggered by recruitment procedures manipulated by corruption and
clientelist networks that still exist today. The increase since 2015 in these
contentious practices underlines the importance in taking action against such
structures by exposing their past, fighting their continuation, and preventing
new ones from emerging.

While the rule of former President
Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was built on repression and control, a network around
his wider family controlled all economic activities in the country. As a member
of the National Constituent Assembly remarked in a 2014 interview: “Well,
people are worried because they have experienced the Ben Ali system. That’s
very diffuse, […], that’s many responsible people, […] that’s a clientelist
network […].”This system was further
described as a ‘market of power’, in which favours were exchanged with or
without a financial component. This clientelist network spans across sectors
and did not only affect
the economy itself. According to one anti-corruption official, the judiciary for instance was deeply affected by
the system of favouritism and the (sometimes competing) strife of clan figures
for control.

Ben Ali
the ‘tip of the iceberg’

Looking back to the year 2011,
post-‘Arab Spring’ Tunisia almost immediately started investigating corruption
and embezzlement with a dedicated commission (the ‘Amor Commission’, named
after its head) to hold figures from the ‘old regime’ accountable for both
political and economic crimes, through criminal trials in military and civil
courts. Ben Ali and close family members received long prison sentences for
their criminal economic activities, but they remain in exile and have not been
in the country to be held accountable. Moreover, the electoral law of 2011
regulating the elections for the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) barred former
officials of the Ben Ali regime and the ruling party (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique: RCD)
from running for public office.

However, these initial efforts to
dismantle the system of corruption and to deal with economic crimes did not
provide a sustainable solution for the problem. Corruption and favouritism did
not suddenly stop with the ouster of Ben Ali
Corruption and favouritism did not suddenly stop and the structures the clientelist system was built upon did
not vanish with the ouster of Ben Ali.

In 2014, NCA members noted that Ben
Ali was only the tip of the regime’s iceberg, and that ‘the system’ goes deeper
and are still there. “The fall of Ben Ali – that was only the fall of the head
of the corrupt regime. That was not the fall of the entire corrupt regime.
Hence, the corrupt regime still exists.” Moreover, countering the
initial vetting and lustration efforts, there has been a trend within the
political sphere of letting old regime figures back in. A proposed article in
the draft constitution (Article 167) that would have banned those who held
positions of responsibility within the former ruling party did not make it
through the NCA in mid-2014. And therefore, those who were still there were
provided with an avenue back into official politics.

New law a threat to transitional justice 

In 2012, a structured transitional
justice process was initiated by the government at that time, the so-called
‘troika’ led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party in coalition with two
smaller secularist parties. The transitional justice law provides the legal
basis for also dealing with economic crimes because it places corruption and
embezzlement within the mandate of the transitional justice project.

The Truth and Dignity Commission
established in 2014 can investigate these economic crimes and victims can be
acknowledged as such. A sub-commission of the Truth and Dignity Commission
furthermore deals with arbitration in the realm of economic crimes (which is
not possible for human rights violations). With Ben Ali gone but the ‘system’ still
in place, many have put their faith in the transitional justice process to
dismantle underlying clientelist structures, as there is a strong lack of trust
in pre-existing institutions and the ‘ordinary’ justice system

However, in 2015 President Béji Caid
Essebsi first initiated a draft ‘economic reconciliation law’ that would decisively
curtail the Truth and Dignity Commission’s mandate and create competing
competences for corruption, embezzlement and economic crimes. In fact, it would
provide avenues for corrupt businessmen to discretely ‘buy themselves out’ of
legal trouble with payments to a so-called ‘development fund’ – without
dismantling the underlying “wheelwork
of corruption

Borrowing transitional justice terminology and
framing the draft law as a ‘reconciliation’ initiative shows the attempt to
undermine the structured transitional justice process. The bill, which has been
rejected by the Assembly of the Representatives of the People before, has been
reintroduced to Parliament in April, but is still meeting resistance.

The protest movement in rural Tunisia

The campaign Manich Msamah has
just entered its third round of mobilization against the reconciliation law, and
many view the campaign as the only expression of public discontent with the way
political elites deal with favoritism. In fact, there are larger numbers and
more geographically diffuse protests in the socioeconomically marginalized
interior regions of Tunisia. They are usually contextualized as public outrage at
unemployment and regional marginalization – which they also are. But what is
often forgotten is that the triggers of these protests in many cases are corrupt
recruitment procedures.

These dynamics date back to pre-2011. The six-month long Gafsa revolt
between January and June in 2008, which is today considered as the precursor of
the 2010/11 uprising, started when the main employer of the phosphate-mining
basin, the Compagnie de Phosphate de
(CPG), announced lists of new recruits. But they had been manipulated
by Amara Abassi, who was the regional head of the trade union federation and at
the same time Member of Parliament for the then-ruling party RCD.

Over decades, he had built clientelist networks, and jobs in the public
sector company were one resource he could distribute in order to expand his
ties. Jobs were distributed to family and clan members, to people with social
capital or those who simply paid for jobs. During the course of the protests
the demands expanded and integrated calls for regional development and employment
in general. They were only brought to halt by the brutal intervention of state
security forces.

Corruption and clientelist networks that influence job distribution
spark protests until today, mainly in the marginalized interior. The greatest
recent incident was the protest wave of January 2016. Although it lasted only
10 days, it topped the record
of actions of the revolution of 2010/2011. The protest wave kicked
off when 26-year-old Ridha Yahyaoui was electrocuted while climbing a utility
pole in Kasserine protesting against his removal from a recruitment list. In
2015, after staging a sit-in, he had been promised a job in the next round of
government recruitment. Yet a year later his name had disappeared from the
list, something his family explained by widespread

Legitimacy of the new political

The general assessment that jobs are still either channeled to political
clients or to the ones who can afford to pay was shared in interviews conducted
with activists of the Union of Unemployed Graduates (Union des diplômés
chômeurs-UDC) and unemployed protesters outside many organizations. One of the
UDC’s claims was therefore a reform of recruitment procedures towards more
transparency and the establishment of an independent institution supervising
job distribution. This would help fighting clientelist networks and practices
inherited from the Ben Ali era, and at the same time enhance the credibility of
the new political order including new institutions and actors.

The latter so far, and particularly the two major parties in power,
Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, have not managed to win the trust of unemployed
people. Ennahda, for instance, was heavily criticized for hiring 18,000 of its
own members and sympathizers, justified by the fact that those people had faced
great discrimination without access to public resources under Ben Ali. Jobs for
them were viewed as a kind of compensation as part of the 2011 law granting
amnesty to political prisoners and restitution for victims of the Ben Ali regime.
Nidaa Tounes in turn has earned a reputation of being the party of the old
regime cronies that have re-entered the political stage.

Successive governments have either neglected socioeconomic protests or
delegitimized them as creating chaos
Successive governments have either neglected socioeconomic protests or delegitimized them as creating chaos and preparing the ground for terrorists.
Repression, mainly in the form of arrests and legal prosecution, has increased,
too, while the police have been accused of resorting to old, abusive
in dealing with oppositional forces. And in most cases, when jobs
were actually distributed to unemployed protesters, it happened on a random
basis. In many cases national government members would approach small groups of
protesters without affiliations to parties or civil society organizations and
negotiate with them. The aim was to calm the situation by bringing some people
into employment. Therefore, the incentive structures have rewarded fragmented
protests that focus on personal employment. As a result, socioeconomic protests
have become limited in regard to actors and demands.

Sustainable employment
and socioeconomic development

What might have seemed like a smart strategy to avoid wide-reaching
demands and alliance-building (inherited from dictatorship when violent
repression was always at hand as ultima
) has backfired. Firstly, these protests have increased as they seem
to be the only way to get a job for those without social or economic capital to
invest. Furthermore, these many small protests which often continue for a long
time on a low-intensity level can very quickly turn into a regional or even
nation-wide wave of protest.

In many cases, the trigger often is, as mentioned above, corruption and
clientelism in job distribution. Ultimately, meaningful jobs with the overall
aim of sustainable development are completely absent from the equation. Without
a change in government policies, job creation will not have any positive
economic impact. On the contrary political pressure on the private sector to
hire people cannot be exercised anymore than it was under Ben Ali. Only the
public sector is still in the hand of political elites and the expenses for new
jobs are solely carried by the state budget – a fact that is continuously
criticized by the IMF, though the latter’s general call for a reduction of the
public sector obviously is hardly the solution to the complex entanglement of
power and money.

Given the current dynamics of socioeconomic protests it becomes clear
why the ‘economic reconciliation law’ is such an affront – not only for those
who want to make old wrongs right – but also for a population that keeps on
struggling with the same problems caused by relatively unchanged state
practices in the field of employment and regional development. If such a law
should replace Tunisia’s structured transitional justice process with regard to
corruption and economic crimes, then a real transition away from the old
authoritarian social contract seems hardly in sight.