Where does Tunisia’s fight against corruption stand at the moment, and how do you characterize the government’s efforts in that regard?
Fighting corruption has become one of the priorities of the current national unity government, and when presenting his platform Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said, “My government is an anti-corruption government, and I am declaring a war on corruption.” This is a positive development we had been trying to achieve. It is a good thing corruption has become a major issue in Tunisia. Everyone is talking about it, especially within political circles and civil society, but even everyday Tunisians. This plays into our strategy at the National Anti-Corruption Authority to make corruption a national issue. We need political will, which will not happen without the public standing up. The authority has done well in civil society and the media, and Tunisia has moved from denying corruption’s existence to admitting it, particularly in the government’s official stance. In the past, the government said that we were making a big deal out of nothing, but the situation has changed now.
In 2016, Tunisia passed laws like the Law on Access to Information and the Law on Reporting Corruption Cases and Protecting Whistleblowers, which was groundbreaking for the entire world, not just the Middle East. There is now a draft law in the Assembly of Representatives that requires public disclosure of income and assets and criminalizes illicit gains and conflicts of interest, which is also major progress for the legislative arsenal. All of these gains allowed Tunisia to improve in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2016 for the first time in four years. Tunisia now ranks 75 out of 176, tied with Turkey, Kuwait, and Bulgaria. Our goal is to be one of the 50 most transparent countries in the world within the next three to five years, and this is possible because there is more public awareness, national (public) will, and a consolidation of political will.
Why has corruption been difficult to stamp out?
One of the top goals of the Tunisian revolution was to overthrow the corrupt system headed by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He had put in place a system of laws and administrative practices to protect his own interests and those of his family members and cronies. Unfortunately, after the revolution, we did not dismantle this corrupt system, even as we expelled the most corrupt figures. Ben Ali fled, some of his family members were tried and found guilty, and others had property confiscated. Less than a year after the revolution, his system of corruption was up and running again with new people in charge. Graft was democratized after the revolution—before, it benefited a handful of prominent figures, but it spread to dozens, hundreds, and then thousands of people who knew how to play the system for their own gain. On top of that, state institutions—including security, judicial, and administrative agencies—were badly weakened because Tunisians naturally saw them as pillars of the Ben Ali regime. Many of the people who ruled post-revolution Tunisia were also in unfamiliar roles and preoccupied with other priorities, such as fighting terrorism. Others were fine with using corruption for their own means, like financing their political parties and buying off journalists or bureaucrats. All of these factors together helped spread corruption and do greater damage to Tunisia.
What is the most important requirement to move the fight against corruption forward?
Political will is necessary to dismantle the system of graft. This system is based on laws and arrangements, and only politicians can put forward and approve bills to change them. Political will is also needed because without it we cannot resist corruption. Most corruption cases in Tunisia involve administration, broadly speaking, and concern politicians and government bureaucrats, because Tunisia has a highly centralized system where the government plays an outsized role—the state is the top employer, exporter, and importer. Corruption was rampant within the political scene, as a marriage of convenience took place between money and politics in Tunisia. The state’s weakness allowed corrupt ringleaders to enhance their grip over the primarily smuggling-based parallel economy, which in turn requires graft to survive. The parallel economy now makes up about half of the Tunisian economy, giving an idea how rampant corruption is. Tunisia’s economy is fairly modest in size, with a GDP of around $50 billion. Corruption has an outsized impact on such resource-poor economies, and our GDP is based largely on corruption-prone sectors such as services, tourism, industry, and foreign investment.
To what extent is the economic recovery helping stave off corruption?
An economic recovery based on transparency and good governance would of course contribute to the fight against corruption. But that requires deep legislative and administrative reforms. The judiciary needs to be reformed as well, in order to play an effective role as a separate branch and remove the culture of impunity by cracking down on the corrupt. But while the Tunisian economy is actually doing fairly well, the state is impoverished, because half of all transactions are taking place outside the official economy. This is a threat to stability because the corrupt people running half the economy are trying to wrestle power away from the state, take over the state institutions, and turn Tunisia into a mafia state. We cannot be lenient on corruption, both petty violations and major corruption. There is no difference between one type of corruption and another. Corruption is a system and an environment, and we need to focus our efforts to uproot and eliminate it in its different forms as much as possible.
Do you believe that the economic reconciliation bill will be a possible setback to anti-corruption efforts and the transitional justice process?
There was an initial draft law on Reconciliation in the Economic and Financial Sectors submitted in 2015 that did not go far enough and could be seen as bypassing transitional justice. There is a new draft now under discussion in parliament, and we are waiting to see its final form before passing judgment. In my opinion, in order to succeed—because we all want reconciliation, but not at any cost—the final bill needs to respect the foundations, standards, and conditions of transitional justice. This requires a process of at least five stages: fact-finding, accountability, victim compensation, taking measures to prevent it from happening again, and finally reconciliation. Without all this, no reconciliation bill, whatever its motives may be, can succeed. It would just be a law on paper that cannot be enforced. In my opinion, the issue requires a political consensus, and more importantly, an appropriate political atmosphere, which is currently still missing.
What is the next step in the fight against corruption, and what major challenges do you perceive moving forward?
There still needs to be more pressure on government, legislators, and the judiciary to fight and address corruption. There are certainly positive indicators we should appreciate, but also matters where we need to take quicker, more resolute action. This is what we are asking of our government. We are heavily counting on Tunisian and international civil society, the media, and every single Tunisian to get involved in this war on corruption, which is an individual duty and not just a communal obligation.
I think we have won the biggest battle, which was passing these laws and establishing a legal framework. There will be a smaller battle to implement them. We may start out implementing only 20 or 50 or 70 percent of them, but it does not matter, what matters is that there are laws. This also applies to the current Tunisian constitution, which one of the best in the world: progressive and civil, stipulating a separation of powers. The constitution is still not fully implemented, but it is there and it has a good text. Full implementation will come with time, after the situation settles down, more progress is made on democratization, and state institutions regain their strength. I think that we have finished the most critical part and need to keep pushing now that the path forward is clear. As I have said many times, the anti-corruption train in Tunisia is on track, even if it is moving slowly. A few years or even months ago there was no train or tracks. The challenge now is to get this train to speed up.
What about civil society? How do you see its role in fighting corruption?
If there was an award for best performance in fighting corruption, it would go to civil society, which has been one of the most important warriors against corruption. For this reason, when I was named as head of the National Anti-Corruption Authority at the beginning of 2016, the first steps I took were to forge a coalition with civil society, which was formalized with a signed document. The mission is to have more coordinated efforts, joint planning, and integration, which allows us to save time and money. We also supported a number of NGOs, particularly in the provinces, to implement anti-corruption programs, and our commission has offered them material and logistic support despite our own limited resources.
I have also worked to strengthen civil society’s voice within our leadership committee, which was formed in 2012 and has been working on an anti-corruption strategy. This may have been a contributing factor that enabled us to finalize a national strategy on December 9, 2016, after nearly four years of work. So I can only salute civil society, which of course needs more support, coordination, and integration.
What role can the international community play to support Tunisia in this effort specifically?
There are many areas where the international community can contribute, starting with backing Tunisian civil society in making corruption a top priority. Technical and logistical experience in fighting corruption also needs to be shared with the National Anti-Corruption Authority, the judicial branch, and the various watchdog committees—because even as we have been evolving, so have the corrupt special interest groups, and they have more resources and experience at their disposal. The partnership and cooperation agreements the Tunisian government has signed with various European governments and NGOs that want Tunisia to democratize need to be used to pressure the Tunisian government to muster the political will to fight corruption.
Chawki Tabib is the head of Tunisia’s National Anti-Corruption Commission. Intissar Fakir conducted this interview in Arabic. It has been edited for style and clarity