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

A new economic reconciliation law protects clientelist structures in Tunisia and replaces the process of transitional justice, but a real transition away from the old authoritarian social contract will be impossible if it passes.

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 Msamah (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 offers.

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 AliCorruption 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 Gafsa (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 number 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 corruption.

Legitimacy of the new political order

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 chaosSuccessive 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 tactics 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 ratio) 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.

About the authors

Mariam Salehi is a research fellow at the Center for Conflict Studies at the University of Marburg (Germany).

Irene Weipert-Fenner is a postdoctoral researcher and project director of "Socioeconomic Protests and Political Transformation: Dynamics of Contentious Politics in Egypt and Tunisia Against the Background of South American Experiences" at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (Germany).


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