Tunisia: A Success Story?
“Manich Msamah”—Arabic for “I will not forgive”—is emblazoned across t-shirts and flags. Crowds of Tunisian citizens gather in front of government buildings across eleven cities to protest. A new measure passed by the Tunisian Parliament, the Administrative Reconciliation Act, will grant amnesty to corrupt officials who worked under the old regime. Frustration is palpable in the shouting voices.
Today, Tunisia is often praised by the West for emerging from the Arab Spring with a functional, if imperfect, democracy. But the aftermaths of revolutions are never clean. Tunisia must reckon with the tangled web of corruption and economic troubles that still plague its young democracy.
Six years after the revolution, there is a widespread dissatisfaction with the government among Tunisians. Unemployment is as high as it was before the revolution, and not much has been done to address this immediate job shortage. Sarah Feuer, a fellow at the Washington Institute who specializes in North African politics and religion, notes that, “on the level of job creation, infrastructure development, [and] the kind of day to day service provisions that the citizens are in contact with, the Tunisian government has been much slower to act.”
Recently, the new regime has expanded the public sector and introduced job training programs to supplement an individual’s income. But these are paltry improvements in the face of widespread unemployment.
Among Tunisians younger than 25, the unemployment rate is higher than 30 percent. This figure is especially concerning for the Tunisian government since the looming threat of radicalization presents another potentially destabilizing force in an already turbulent country.
The situation is worse in the interior regions of Tunisia. Here, the lack of investments has left the interior underdeveloped, with the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the nation. In the interior cities bordering Algeria, smuggling has flourished to compensate for crippling unemployment and high tariffs on imported goods. Entire communities have become dependent on the contraband market.
With the instability that immediately followed the fall of the Ben Ali regime, smuggling has “mushroomed,” said Feuer. “Smuggling has been happening for decades. For a long time, the state [before the revolution] kind of turned a blind eye to it, but it was managed…After the uprising, the state was no longer enforcing the borders since everything was thrown into disarray and chaos.” The economy hadn’t improved, but suddenly there were no government officials or police to limit the amount of contraband flowing through the border.
The new Tunisian government has powerful incentives to crack down on illegal trade at Tunisia’s borders. Tunisia’s rampant smuggling is costly for its economy, not only from the revenue lost from import and export taxes, but also from the competition that Tunisian producers face from these illegally traded goods.
However, clamping down on Tunisia’s informal trade will undoubtedly have a negative impact on citizens who rely on smuggling to make their ends meet. “It’s one of the dilemmas the state is facing,” said Feuer. A smuggler in Kasserine, one of Tunisia’s governorates, told the Al-monitor that “Security can’t crack down on us…entire communities would riot if they tried.”
In addition to illegal trade, one of the greatest detriments to the Tunisian economy is internal political corruption. Political oppression and economic grievances are inseparable, and this had been the case during the Ben Ali regime. “’A job is a [human] right, you band of thieves,’ was one of the slogans used by revolutionaries,” said Nathan Grubman, a PhD student at Yale, in an interview with The Politic.
In Tunisia, a complex red tape system has historically enabled networks of corruption to thrive. The tangled web of both formal and informal procedural hurdles could be easily manipulated to serve the interests of the ruling family. Under Ben Ali, the government erected various entry barriers to shield businesses run by the ruling family and their associates from competition. Convoluted regulations discouraged foreign investors and corporations.Domestically, the onerous regulations prevented the growth of entrepreneurs and small to medium-size businesses, which make up a significant portion of Tunisia’s GDP.
Under this system of government patronage and crony capitalism for well-connected elites, the growth of vital private sector jobs stagnated.
Through the creation of transitional justice bodies and efforts to reduce cumbersome regulations, Tunisia’s government has attempted to address some of the corruption of the old regime and simultaneously improve the economy. As to reforms in the investment code and banking sectors, Tunisia has begun to take steps in the right direction. “Cleaning up the fiscal realm has been a priority, and I think on that measure, [the government] has done a pretty good job,” Feuer said.
But despite these measures, old networks of corruption still linger, impeding progress and fueling frustration. Before, elite circles within the ruling family would concoct grand schemes to embezzle the money of the Tunisian people. Today, with those elites gone, there has been a “democratization of corruption.” Opportunities to abuse the political office have expanded beyond a tight control of a centralized, family circle.
Grubman observed that “Tunisians have not been satisfied by the measures taken by the Tunisian government. There is a wide sense of failure to prosecute corruption and close loopholes due to a lack of political will from elites of both [parties].” This September, a public opinion poll revealed that people believe that corruption has actually worsened since the revolution.
Recently, Prime Minister Chahed, who was appointed by President Essebsi in 2016, led a “crackdown” on corruption that met widespread approval by the Tunisian public. However, these efforts have lost momentum in recent months, and on September 13th of this year, the Tunisian Parliament passed the Administrative Reconciliation Act. It is “one of the greatest setbacks for the transitional justice process” in Tunisia, said Feuer. This extremely controversial measure would essentially forgive the economic crimes committed by individuals under the old regime.
Supporters of this legislation largely consist of members of the Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda parties. Since the 2014 election, Nidaa Tounes, a coalition of leftists, secularists, and individuals who previously worked for the old regime, has been the dominant party in the Tunisian government. The main opposition to the Nidaa Tounes has traditionally been Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party. However, to the dismay of some citizens, many members of Ennahda voted in favor of the controversial bill.
Proponents of the legislation argue that, at this time, the state is not equipped to handle so many cases of economic corruption; the sheer volume would be impossible to document. And, in order for the economy to grow, Tunisia needs to attract investors that are not afraid of being prosecuted for whatever economic crimes they may have committed in the past.
But for the opposition, the Reconciliation Act is an additional failure of the new government to address the problems of the old regime.
According to Elizabeth Nugent, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard who has conducted fieldwork in Tunisia, “a part of the reason for the pushback against this Reconciliation bill is because it has been pushed through by a party representing the old regime.” Despite initial resistance, Tunisia has witnessed the return of many former regime members to public office.
To a certain degree, this was necessary; governments need politicians with experience to function properly. However, Nugent cautions that, “there are a couple of members in Nidaa Tounes who may have been involved in the economic or political corruption and repression. That’s where it gets tricky, [deciding] whether or not those people need to be brought to justice.” With the cabinet reshuffle that took place in September, even more old regime officials have made their way back into government offices.
But even with such lingering controversies, both parties have so far adopted strategies of compromise and civil discourse, an attitude that has been vital for Tunisia’s budding democracy. Benkredda Belabbes, the founder of the Munathara Initiative, the largest Arab citizen debate forum, remarked, “Arguably the single most important factor in the relative success [of Tunisia’s] democratic transition is that there’s been a very constructive culture of compromise among the main political actors.” However, he noted that there is also a “worrying distrust of those in power” among the Tunisian people.
Tunisia is neither caught in a civil war nor swarmed by militant extremists. Compared to other countries in the region, the nation may appear relatively quiet. There have been undeniable improvements in human rights. Freedom of speech and association have vastly improved, enough that “some might say that alone is worth it,” Nugent said. However, Tunisia is still haunted by ghosts of its former regime. There is still much work to do.