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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

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.

Tunisians wave their national flag as they take part in a general strike against marginalisation and to demand development and employment, in Tataouine, south of Tunisia, on 11 April 2017. AFP/Fathi Nasri

Blocked Transition: Corruption and Regionalism in Tunisia

Corruption and clientelism are undermining democratic transition in Tunisia, a unique success story after the 2011 Arab uprisings. To put the country back on track, the government should launch a national economic dialogue including established business elites and emerging provincial business leaders.

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Executive Summary

The political consensus in place since the late-2014 parliamentary and presidential elections has stabilised Tunisian politics but is beginning to reach its limits. Despite the formation of a national unity government comprising the main political parties, the country suffers from a growing sense of socio-regional exclusion and weakening state authority, which are nurtured by spreading corruption and clientelism. Continuing the democratic transition and achieving economic recovery will require this consensus to be deepened beyond current arrangements between political and union leaders. A new audacious and innovative approach would include influential business personalities, in particular those from marginalised regions whose power in political and social life is hidden but growing.

In the context of macroeconomic instability, the business community is showing increasing signs of polarisation, not just among business leaders but also between them and barons of the parallel economy, especially smuggling. 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, a situation it intends to maintain. On the other, some among a new class of entrepreneurs from marginalised regions, who are partly confined to informal trade, are backing violent protests against central authorities and aspires to carve a place among – if not eventually replace – the established elite.

At the core of this entrenched conflict, which is poisoning economic and political competition, stands the monopolisation of key administrative positions that control access to credit and the formal economy. This contributes to the spread and “democratisation” of corruption, and paralyses reform. This in turn reinforces regional inequalities stemming from discrimination against citizens from marginalised regions, which itself is the result of administrative officials’ arbitrary powers and the banking system’s inflexibility.

While Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s national unity government has expressed its strong determination to fight corruption and reinvigorate the economy, it has repeatedly run into roadblocks. It has become clear that the reforms it advocates are unlikely to be implemented without a political initiative that aims to curtail these economic actors’ hidden influence.

Although the government, backed by Tunisia’s international partners, has announced a series of important measures, additional ones need to gain priority in order to improve public financial probity, protect the state from clientelist networks, and begin to tackle the sources of socio-regional exclusion, as this will affect stability in the medium term. To this end:

  • The government should provide the National Authority for the Fight Against Corruption (INLUCC) adequate human and financial resources to implement its strategy;
     
  • The government, in cooperation with parliament, should establish a legal framework for lobbying and brokerage activities to reduce influence-peddling at the highest political levels;
     
  • The parliament should reduce administrative officials’ discretionary power – which fosters clientelism and corruption and is partly responsible for the fact that entrepreneurs from marginalised regions lack access to credit and markets – by simplifying administrative procedures in the economic sphere and removing excessively repressive legal provisions that entail prison sentences; and
     
  • The government and parliament should, based on existing law, require political parties to submit their annual financial reports to the Court of Auditors and extend financial disclosure requirements already applied to government ministers and senior civil servants to parliamentarians and presidential staff so as to weaken clientelist networks.
     

To be effective, these reforms should be accompanied by a rigorous and comprehensive national economic dialogue between the presidency, the government, the main political parties, trade unions and associations, and especially the country’s most influential businessmen and businesswomen – whether they supported the pre-2011 regime or have been involved in the parallel economy. Such a dialogue, which will inevitably meet with resistance, should aim to render the formal economy more inclusive for newcomers from the interior and redouble political will in the anti-corruption struggle. It would need to include, on the basis of specific and objective criteria, business people who are creating obstacles to these aims.

Ideally, such a dialogue would yield legal amnesties. It should also encourage the creation of public-private investment funds dedicated to the development of marginalised regions, especially in high added-value sectors, while facilitating the implementation of stricter policies against corruption and smuggling.

The main political parties and trade unions, as well as local and international civil society organisations, should back an initiative from which the country has everything to gain. Members of the established economic elite and emerging entrepreneurs should both be able to escape the lose-lose logic that pushes them to economically sabotage one another, which could give rise to violent conflict in the future.

This means working toward the evolution of the current political consensus based on a gentlemen’s agreement that aims to break the cycle of political polarisation between Islamists and non-Islamists – but which in effect has often resulted in a clientelist redistribution of state resources – to reach a genuine social and regional contract that can shield the country from an upsurge in violence and a return to dictatorship.

Tunis/Brussels, 10 May 2017