Behind the resonating headlines coming out of Tunisia, there is a hidden beast called organised corruption; the legacy of a pyramidal hierarchy conceived and catered for by the ousted dictator, Ben Ali. During his reign (1987 – 2011), the final call was exclusively his, but now the position of the decision-maker is dispersed throughout the country among high officials, who are trying to leap forward in an attempt to cleanse themselves of their corrupt past.
Only 20% of the 2012-2013 development budget was rightly allocated to the infrastructure of interior marginalised counties: the remaining 80% was skimmed off by a well-established mafia deeply involved in endless bureaucracy, created to legally 'milk' the budget into the pockets of these officials. If you are looking for a common denominator in Tunisia, just try to initiate a start-up, and you will soon realise how things work. A bribe will have to be paid at every step of the ladder, unless you’re happy to wait for years, maybe even a lifetime. On the other hand, if the game is played according to the rulebook of forking out money wherever a hand is extended, instant service will be acquired.
Corruption has increased in Tunisia in the wake of its uprising, according to Transparency International. Tunisia’s rank, in the annual index of corruption perception, fell from 59 to 73. What is worse is that even three successive interim governments have completely failed to look into this matter, which leads to only one conclusion for observers of Tunisian economic and political life; the beast of corruption remains powerful, it threatens ministers, presidents, military generals and even ambassadors. The barons of this beast are manipulating everyone, directly or indirectly, through bribery, intimidation and/or threats. This is the general mood in Tunisia and these are the governing principles when it comes to dealing with one another. People are kept hungry, marginalised and uneducated, so that they will always keep begging for money and a better life; hence they will resort to the beast to save them from their misery, the perfect equation for a corrupt apparatus.
What makes things worse is when a new minister, with good intentions, tries to gain control by auditing and re-viewing contracts. The problem here is that employees will provide false numbers, as their loyalty is not to their ministry or country, it is to the barons of corruption. At the peak of all this are the judges, who in many cases, will categorically judge in favour of the corrupt system. However, even if the court ruling is in your favour, which is rare, the execution of the court ruling will most likely not take place because the executive branch will not allow it to be implemented.
Corruption extends to every corner of Tunisia; it can be found in every single sector from education to healthcare to the border customs agency. For instance, in 2012 bribery doubled in Rades sea port. According to Maher Kshouk, head of the Tunisian administration for transportation “bribery doubled in the sea port of Rades and in the administrative routine and bureaucracy, both of these factors are literally destroying our economy, and the crisis is getting worse, and no one cares”. Maher Kshouk, thought that the situation would get better after the revolution, however on the contrary, the situation has worsened. We contacted the transportation minister to rectify these issues at the end of 2012: he promised to investigate, but till this day nothing has changed. To vindicate this claim, you can see what the head of the businessmen's organisation of Tunisia Wided Bouchamaoui said on 5 February 2014: “we have to increase control on our borders to decrease smuggling of goods, and parallel illegal trade. This phenomenon continues to linger within our society and if it continues at this pace it will inevitably destroy the whole economy.”
In education, for example, when I successfully finished my MA in AR/EN translation and interpretation from Salford University in January 2012, I immediately returned to Tunisia hoping to work at the Faculty of Letters and Humanities of Sfax in the field of translation and interpretation. I contacted the university where I had acquired my BA and inquired about a position in the English department. I was told that my MA was worthless unless the Ministry of Higher Education issued the equivalence. After submitting the request to the ministry, and waiting for 12 months, I was awarded a taught MA – my degree was a research degree – I appealed and after another three months they denied me the exact degree equivalence. This has left me with no choice but to freelance while scores of new graduates, just because they know or are paying the right people, are finding themselves positions in the ministry.
To conclude, I admit that the new constitution is a step forward, but it won’t change anything in the near future. From an ordinary citizen’s perspective, there are only two things that will give us hope that the beast can be felled. The first is seeing projects being implemented (roads, sea and air ports, train railways, universities and schools...). The second is seeing those who manipulated the system being tried, and if found guilty, jailed.
Corruption can be found all over the world, but in Tunisia it is the norm. It has reached an alarming rate; creeping into people’s daily routines. As an observer and Tunisian citizen, I can see that corruption is becoming normalised. But let’s try to be optimistic, especially after the ratification of the new constitution, and let’s hope that things will change for the better soon.