North Africa, West Asia

Corruption: the Tunisian transition's worst enemy

The key to facing the challenge of radicalisation, while maintaining and making tangible the democratic gains since the revolution, is tackling on-going corruption.

Fabian Stroetges
27 March 2015

Hamideddine Bouali/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The Bardo museum attackers killed at least 22 people, including many foreign tourists. With their attack occurring within shouting distance of Tunisia’s parliament, it appears they were really aiming at the country’s democratic transition.

Since the revolution in 2011, the security situation has clearly deteriorated and in the country’s interior the Tunisian army is regularly the aim of attacks by radical Islamist groups. In reacting to this much more symbolic attack in central Tunis, some worry the state could overreach and lapse into repression once again. The incident has also given fresh salience to the question of why so many Tunisians have become radicalised.

Often called the 'cradle of the Arab Spring', Tunisia has made the furthest strides towards democracy in the region. How can the most hopeful case of the Arab uprisings at the same time be its most prolific exporter of jihadist fighters? It will hardly be the 'new freedoms' themselves which 'drive support' for religious violence, as one journalist hypothesised.

Observers rightly point out that the dire socioeconomic situation many Tunisians face has barely improved since the revolution. Many recommend that the international community do more to support North Africa’s most promising candidate for democracy, to reduce the attraction of terrorist groups. However, most accounts fail to take note of another constant variable in the Tunisian transition that is closely linked to both security and the economy: corruption.

While much of the region descended into sharp polarisation and conflict, Tunisia has made remarkable progress in establishing a democratic political system since its people toppled the Ben Ali regime in 2011. In its first free and fair elections that year, the country elected a National Constituent Assembly that was tasked with drafting a democratic constitution within twelve months.

The deadline passed, and an atmosphere of increasing mistrust between the government—dominated by the Islamist party Ennahda—and the mostly secular opposition emerged. Two political assassinations of prominent opposition figures came close to derailing the transition in 2013.

In the end, four civil society organisations—led by the powerful Trade Union Association UGTT—managed to broker a roadmap for the conclusion of the transition under a technocratic administration. The year 2014 saw the adoption of a democratic constitution by a broad majority of parties, as well as national elections determining the parliament and president of the fresh Tunisian republic. The new government is a coalition of secular and Islamist parties. All this was close to unthinkable a mere five years ago.

Yet while Tunisia’s political system has made extraordinary advances, its economy has not only suffered from the instability of the political transition—its structure has also hardly changed since the kleptocratic Ben Ali regime was overthrown.

Currently, overall unemployment stands at 15 percent, and almost a third of young graduates are jobless. And yet these figures mask the real extent of the problem as unemployment in some regions reaches close to 25 percent, with that of young graduates far exceeding that number.

For decades, Tunisia has been marked by regional disparities between the affluent coastal areas that benefited from international investment and tourism on the one hand and a largely deprived interior on the other—in 2012, poverty rates in the latter were up to four times higher than in the former. But it was not only the market that has treated the regions differently. Public services also drastically vary in quality between the wealthy urban centres and poor rural areas.

The economic consequences of the Ben Ali regime went far beyond such shortcomings and regional negligence. To a staggering extent, the regime was able to use the state to enrich itself and a few cronies. By late 2010, just 220 firms pocketed an extraordinary 21 percent of all private sector profits even though they only represented three percent of private sector output.

It is safe to assume that such companies were linked to the regime and benefited from regulatory capture, when the rules of a whole industry are tailored toward the gain of one or a handful of market participants.

At the other end of the spectrum, fledgling entrepreneurs were often too afraid of the authorities to expand their businesses. Commercial success could attract attention from the state and the cronies around the Ben Ali regime. Rather than being forced into paying bribes, many preferred to stay below the radar and avoid growing and employing more people. Clearly, corruption was rife on a massive scale and had a profound impact on the wider economy.

The problem is that while the Tunisian authorities have investigated several cases of corruption from the Ben Ali era, the system as such has not fundamentally changed since 2011. Indeed, many Tunisians complain that bribery in everyday life has become even worse than under the previous regime.

Yes, the government has introduced several initiatives aimed against corruption in the public sector, but many involved in those efforts think they are nowhere near adequate. After the introduction of the widely hailed new constitution in February 2014, one observer noted that it will change little for ordinary citizens.

Corruption, he argued, was still the common denominator in Tunisia. For instance, a “well-established mafia” used a complex web of bureaucracy to shave off 80 percent from development funds intended for the marginalised interior. Such events frustrate the hopes for justice that Tunisians put into their revolution. It leaves ordinary Tunisians with the impression that little has changed for them since the introduction of a new political system.

While many analysts rightly establish a link between socioeconomic deprivation and the attraction of extremist groups, the aspect of corruption is too often overlooked. In several cases, the young Tunisians joining radical groups hailed from relatively secure, middle-class backgrounds.

In her recent book Thieves of State, Sarah Chayes outlines how people in different centuries and cultures have sought recourse against corruption in religious extremism—and points out that this has also been true for Tunisia. Radical religious groups are not only attractive because and when they offer alleviation of economic despair. They also put forward a narrative of fighting against injustice.

And while the new Tunisians political system has introduced many freedoms, many do not see it as effective in the struggle against the still pervasive corruption. In 2014, for the first time since the revolution, more Tunisians said in a poll that they would prefer a stable and prosperous authoritarian system to an unstable democracy.

The challenges for Tunisia’s fledgling democracy cannot be reduced to its economic and security problems alone. They are all interlinked. The combination of a lack of tangible economic progress and a deteriorating security situation has clearly contributed to a sense of hopelessness among Tunisians, especially the youth.

Security and stability are necessary prerequisites to grow the economy, dependent as Tunisia is on the tourist sector and foreign direct investment. In turn, more employment opportunities will also reduce the attraction of radical groups and thereby contribute to security.

It surely makes sense for Tunisia’s international partners to contribute in these areas. But as it undermines economic development and the delivery of justice and security, there is a very real danger that corruption will undermine both.

It will require an intensified effort on the part of Tunisian political leaders and persistent pressure by civil society to fight corruption head-on. Their international partners in Washington, Brussels, and elsewhere can and should support this fight, but the responsibility for it lies first and foremost in Tunis.

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