Blocked Transition: Corruption and Regionalism in Tunisia
Blocked Transition: Corruption and Regionalism in Tunisia
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Young Tunisians sit next to a sculpture featuring a cart and symbolising poverty on Mohamed Bouazizi square on December 14, 2015, in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, on 14 December 2015. AFP/Fethi Belaid
Impact Note / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

Breaking Taboos in Tunisia

Tunisia has struggled to stay on track during the turmoil of the Arab uprisings. A dedicated Tunisia analyst, unique field work and privileged access to influential actors helps Crisis Group play a leading role in shaping policies to ensure the country’s democratic transition stays peaceful.

Tunisia is an exception in the Arab world. Six years after the waves of protest in 2011-2012, it is the only country in the region engaged in a peaceful democratic transition. The International Crisis Group’s presence on the ground and privileged access to influential actors has helped to keep the transition underway. Since 2011, our leading analyst on Tunisia, Michaël Ayari, has become a key player in the country and played an influential role in shaping policy.

Our most recent report, Blocked Transition: Corruption and Regionalism in Tunisia, published on 10 May 2017, had significant impact. One month after it was published, 14,000 people had consulted it, half of them in Tunisia. Strong public interest was evidenced by enthusiastic postings on social networks. “Read Crisis Group’s report and you will understand what’s happening right now in Tunisia”, advised one reader on Facebook. “I have been in Tunisia for one year, but I hadn’t understood a single thing about what was happening until I read it. Then everything seemed clear”, confided one diplomat. 

Demonstrating deep expertise and an intimate understanding of Tunisian society, Ayari provided a detailed analysis of the non-inclusive nature of the national economy. He explained how decades-old administrative mechanisms controlling society and the economy now threaten the transition. His focus made clear the gulf between actors in the formal and informal economy, showing how this is more important than the sterile antagonism between Islamists and anti-Islamists. As for the national economic dialogue recommended by Crisis Group, it could well see the light of day in 2018.

 “I was impressed, but not surprised, by the impact of your report in the media, political circles and civil society. I am pretty sure it is achieving its aim, given the anti-corruption campaign initiated by [the prime minister, Youssef] Chahed”.

Jalloul Ayed, former finance minister (January-December 2011)

Our Blocked Transition report was published on the day the prime minister made a speech on the controversial corruption issue. The publication broke taboos and triggered a national debate on the political influence of economic elites, their role in strengthening clientelism and influence-peddling at the highest levels of government, and on the extent of socio-regional discrimination in the country. In the weeks that followed, the prime minister underlined the importance of the fight against corruption as the number of arrests of business leaders increased. Our report did not advocate the use of such summary methods, however. Quite the opposite: it called for dialogue. Political parties, foreign ministries, big companies and development agencies dedicated entire workshops to studying the paper. Two weeks after its appearance, the director of the North Africa section of the French foreign ministry commissioned a study on the networks responsible for blocking economic reform.

“I can’t remember any other report by an NGO or an international body that has succeeded in changing the direction of the debate between political parties so much. Before the report, the subject was taboo, but no longer is. We have gained a lot of time and can now discuss core matters without having to use innuendo or leave things unsaid”.

Saïd Ferjani, member of the executive committee of An-Nahda (party that is a member of the national unity government)

According to many political leaders, senior Tunisian officials and foreign diplomats, our work since 2011 has set the pace for the evolving political, social and security situation, shining light on the grey areas of the transition, and raising the complex issues that could impede it or provoke lethal conflicts. Crisis Group helps leaders get to grips with these problems by proposing practical courses of action.

Ayari has studied Tunisia’s security questions in particular for several years now, acquiring deep expertise in this domain. In Tunisia’s Borders: Jihadism and Contraband, published in November 2013, he anticipated the deterioration in the security situation on the borders with Libya and Algeria and warned of the risks of an alliance between jihadist groups and organised crime. This report has served as the basis for dozens of studies. It encouraged the authorities to increase the number of joint border patrols under the supervision of the army. The government is also considering taking up recommendations about putting more resources into gathering human intelligence.

Rached Ghannouchi, president of the Islamist An-Nahda party, (right) and Ahmed Ounaies, representative of secular President Essebsi (left), accept International Crisis Group’s Founders Prize in New York, April 2015. CRISIS GROUP/Ron Pollard

In Reform and Security Strategy in Tunisia, published in July 2015, Crisis Group highlighted the latent conflict between the police and the army. It suggested ways of satisfying the security forces’ demands for autonomy while at the same time limiting their power. The report underlined the need to provide more forums for discussion between political decision-makers, senior security officials and international experts to achieve this aim. In 2015 and 2016, in partnership with the Canadian embassy in Tunis, Crisis Group took an active part in this endeavour, organising several roundtables and facilitating discussions between the protagonists.

“[Since 2011, Crisis Group has] been an intermediary between the international community and national decision-makers, promoting their understanding of one another, clarifying for Tunisia’s partners the deeply-rooted forces at play in state and society, and helping Tunisian decision-makers to interpret better the actions of the international community”.

Giordano Segneri, UN Peace and Development Advisor in Tunisia

In 2013, Crisis Group published its first detailed study on Salafism-jihadism in Tunisia, outlining this trend’s likely future course. When Tunisia: Violence and the Salafi Challenge appeared, the country was going through a difficult phase after the assassination of the left-wing politician Chokri Belaïd by an alleged Salafi-jihadist militant. The Islamist party, An-Nahda, took on board our call for it to draw more explicitly on the heritage of the Tunisian reformist movement in order to reduce the risks of religious radicalisation, and intensified internal discussion about doctrinal modernisation, which was officially adopted in 2016. On 22 June 2016, Crisis Group called for the implementation of a national strategy against violent extremism and terrorism. The Tunisian National Security Council (attached to the presidency of the republic) adopted such a strategy on 7 November 2016. This was an essential step for the success of the democratic transition.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.