Fatim-Zohra El Malki, a Washington, DC-based independent researcher. Follow her on Twitter @fzelmalki.
Moments before the vote of confidence that confirmed him as head of government in August 2016, Youssef Chahed set a three-year plan for the country’s economy and security, insisting that “transparency and accountability to the Tunisian people” would be the cornerstones of his tenure. Accusing his predecessors of offering institutional safeguards to high-level corruption and being lenient on those involved, Chahed presented himself as the spearhead of a new Tunisian strategy seeking to neutralize corruption at every societal level.
Over the past year, Chahed launched legal and institutional reforms to tackle the issue from the core, beginning by expanding the 2017 budget for the National Anti-Corruption Unit (INLUCC). The INLUCC is an independent body whose mission is to “prevent, detect, and investigate” corruption cases involving the state and the private sector. Together with INLUCC’s head Chawki Tabib, Chahed spearheaded the new Law on Reporting Corruption Cases and Protecting Whistleblowers that parliament passed unanimously in February 2017. The law, which specifically seeks to curtail corruption by protecting whistleblowers, led to “Operation Clean Hands,” an extensive crackdown on businessmen and high-profile Tunisian figures since May. Many of the government’s efforts specifically target customs agents and smuggling routes—such as the dismissal of officials at the port of Rades and transferring others before a disciplinary board—and is intended to address the expansive informal sector, and growing smuggling networks.
While some consider Chahed’s policy a national revival of anti-corruption measures, skeptics affirm that the government’s goodwill is not enough to efficiently stop abuses. Moreover, parallel efforts—especially the Economic Reconciliation Bill—undermine Tunisia’s anti-corruption strategy and its attempts to prevent a return to cronyism and kleptocracy.
In stark contradiction to the anti-corruption law, on July 19 parliament approved seven articles of the controversial Economic Reconciliation Bill, which had undergone numerous revisions—and has been strongly opposed by civil society groups and the broader public. This bill, renamed the Administrative Reconciliation Law, is President Beji Caid Essebsi’s plan to grant amnesty and end trials against civil servants and state officials accused of stealing public funds under the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Mohamed Abbou, the former Minister in Charge of Administrative Reforms, has criticized the law as an unconstitutional promise of immunity for those who financed the 2014 presidential campaign, warning that it could result in another revolution. For the Manich Msamah (“I Will Not Forgive”) campaign and other civil society movements, this law is a validation of the highest level of corruption. It also undermines other efforts to pursue transitional justice stipulations that those accused of corruption under Ben Ali should be brought to court and their stolen assets seized by the state.
Ranked 75 out of 176 in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, Tunisia has a long way to go before truly succeeding in upholding the achievements of its democratic transition. First, Tunisia should continue to listen to its citizens and take the recommendations of the public sphere into account. Second, the state should adopt a sound and uniform strategy that does not contravene the transitional justice processes in place, but work toward strengthening them in concert with all branches of the government and civil society.