Skip to main content

Tunisia's 'war against corruption' feels like a fake

After recent protests, it's clear that Tunisians want the government to take action - but is this a fight against corruption or just a diversionary tactic?

After weeks of protests across the country, the Tunisian government declared late last month that it had launched a "war on corruption".

Nidaa Tounes and Beji Caid Essebsi are not doing enough to prove to Tunisians that what’s happening is actually a fight against corruption

The "war" started with the arrest of several high-profile businessmen on 23 May over corruption accusations. Their investigations cannot be anything but welcomed. However, Tunisians waited until the following day to hear directly from Prime Minister Youssef Chahed about what was happening exactly.

"In the war on corruption, there's no choice. It's either corruption or the state. Either corruption or Tunisia," Chahed said.

"I want to reassure all Tunisians that the government will see this war on corruption through to the end.”

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed gives his statement at his office in Tunis on 24 May 2017 (AFP)
Unfortunately, Chahed’s statement was very brief and gave no further details, which were only revealed two days later in a Ministry of Interior statement. There are three major points to highlight on the back of the ministry’s statement:

- First, leaks in the media indicated that a specialised military team had arrested the businessmen, yet it was the Ministry of the Interior, not the Ministry of Defence, which issued the statement. Likewise, Chafik Jerraya, among those arrested, appeared on 29 May in front of a military court indicating that his case is in the hands of the military, not the Ministry of the Interior. Jerraya faces steep charges including “serving under a foreign army” which some believe may reference his apparent ties with armed Islamist groups in western Libya, notably those related to Abdelhakim Belhaj. However, this week, Belhaj has denied that Jerraya’s case has anything to do with him.

- Second, the charges brought against the businessmen are primarily focused on security, not simply corruption, with an emphasis on illegal contraband and illegal trade which emerged under the wings of Ben Ali and his in-laws – the Trabelsi family - and flourished in the post-revolutionary era.

- Third, if no further charges are brought, which until now has only happened to Jerraya, the statement indicates that their detention will end at the beginning of July 2017.

Forward march - but against what exactly?

Despite these caveats, any steps taken aimed at any corruption suspects, which the government seems to be doing, is widely supported by Tunisian public opinion who would appear to desire any concrete steps in this fight.

Ultimately, the fear is that we are going to war with one of the parties of corruption and not on corruption as a whole

As it moves forward, the fight against corruption in Tunisia must follow very basic steps including, in particular, the principles of transparency and the primacy of laws and constitutional rights.

Despite the widespread nature of graft under Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, he himself targeted corruption suspects including his protégé Kamel Eltaïef in the mid-1990s. But this was really just a small part in a wider struggle between his various cronies and Ben Ali’s action was taken only to redistribute the spoils.

Chahed has yet to provide guarantees to show that he is not in the process of simply serving the interests of one corrupt boss among a lobby of many. The confiscation committee – a body made up of judges - has yet to release a list which news reports have indicated contain more than 300 names of those who should be arrested on suspicion of corruption.

Additionally, there are still many corruption cases that have been presented by various parties, whether governmental or civil, which have lingered on in Tunisian for years awaiting a final decision.

Ultimately, the fear is that we are going to war with one of the parties of corruption and not on corruption as a whole. The focus of the government’s latest actions is so far on “smugglers” of the informal economy excluding corruption suspects who dominate the formal economy.

Aristocracy and scum

Tunisia’s corruption class, which originated mainly under Ben Ali but continued its hegemony after the revolution, is divided into two categories.

First, there is an older, traditional type of corruption which is sophisticated and well-rooted in the deep state. This is the type involved in the monopolisation of government contracts and bank loans. The other type is a newer and less sophisticated kind of corruption used by the kanatariya (Tunisian colloquial for “smugglers”) as part of the country’s informal economy.

I shall call the first “the aristocracy of corruption" and the second its “scum” layer, following the Marxist concept of Lumpenproletariat.

There is also a regional backdrop to this composition, which is explained well in an International Crisis Group (ICG) report released last month: “On one side, an established economic elite from the Sahel (the eastern coastal region) and large urban centres is protected by and benefits from existing regulations... On the other, some among a new class of entrepreneurs from marginalised regions, who are partly confined to informal trade”.

The law that could be the final blow to Tunisia's transition
Amna Guellali
Read More »

More recently, however, this view has been criticised as it marginalises other factors including the corrupting role played by international financial institutions. As researchers Max Gallien and Mohamed Dhia Hammami noted in a piece on Jadaliyyah, the ICG report “reduces corruption to its legal and political dimensions and ignores its moral and economic aspects”.

Alternative motives

Nidaa Tounes, the leading party in power, and Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi are not doing enough to prove to the Tunisian public and civil society that what’s happening is actually a fight against corruption.

It is Nidaa Tounes that pushed - and is still pushing - for the passage of a corruption-amnesty law called the “Reconciliation Law”, which Essebsi first presented to parliament in July 2015. Its discussion in one of the parliamentary committees was postponed indefinitely in early May before it was put on the table again several weeks later.

The government whipped into action as a result of growing public anger against it, namely against its handling of corruption. Over the past few weeks, members of Tunisia’s civil society, the opposition and even segments of the coalition in power have announced that they are totally opposed or, at the very least, demand major revisions of the “Reconciliation Law”.

National security, terrorism, and the Libyan conflict may actually be at the heart of these arrests

But there is potentially another reason why this apparent war on corruption has been launched which involves political conflicts within the current leadership. Back in April, Maghreb Confidential reported that several of the influential people suspected of corruption, especially those in the ruling party, were preparing to replace Chahed with one of his ministers, Fadel Abdelkafi, after Ramadan.

Another piece in Jeune Afrique reported that an anonymous source “close to the prime minister” said that the arrests of the businessmen is actually linked to arms smuggling to Libya, which means that national security, terrorism, and the Libyan conflict may actually be at the heart of these arrests.

This is one of the reasons that observers, civil society and opposition parties may increasingly doubt the intentions of Chahed’s government.

Many are already pointing to the latest campaign as a way to divert attention from the social unrest in many parts of the country, especially in regions with oil wells such as Tataouine. It was here that a young protester, Anwar Sakrafi, died after being struck by a security forces vehicle as protesters held a peaceful sit-in in the middle of the desert famous now as the “Kamour Sit-in”.

These protests are increasingly converging and are leading to greater demands - including the nationalisation of natural resources and the urgent implementation of decentralisation - which are problematic for a government that is increasingly losing credibility and needs to establish its integrity in the eyes of public opinion.

And this is exactly why it has launched its so-called anti-corruption campaign. But until we have more details and assurances, it will continue to be shrouded in suspicion.

- Tarek Kahlaoui is a former adviser to Tunisia's first Arab Spring president Moncef Marzouki and the former director of the Tunisian Institute of Strategic Studies. He is currently an assistant professor of Islamic history and art at Rutgers University in New Jersey

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi watches on as political party leaders sign documents outlining the roadmap for the formation of a national unity government in Tunisia at the Carthage Palace about15 kilometres on the outskirts of Tunis, on 13 July 2016 (AFP).

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.