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Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears
Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Tunisia: Transitional Justice and the Fight Against Corruption
Tunisia: Transitional Justice and the Fight Against Corruption
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears

Tunisia’s presidential election highlights the multiple divides that trouble the country and region. Unless the winner governs as a truly national leader, representing all Tunisians and not just his base, current tensions could escalate into violence.

I. Overview

The standoff between incumbent President Moncef Marzouki and former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi in the second round of the presidential election, scheduled for 21 December 2014, has revealed fault lines in Tunisian society that political elites believed they had bridged with their sense of consensus and compromise. The electoral map emerging from the parliamentary elections and the first round of the presidential election shows a country divided between a north that is largely pro-Essebsi and his party Nida Tounes, and a south that is in majority pro-Marzouki and favourable to the Islamist party An-Nahda. In order to prevent mutual fears from escalating into violent confrontations, the winner of this first free and competitive presidential poll will have to begin by acknowledging the fears of the loser’s electorate. The new president, government and parliament should commit to jointly address the question of regional imbalances and counter risks of institutional deadlock and 0f repression of dissent.

Fed by the occasionally incendiary rhetoric of the two candidates and their entourage, a number of national traumas repressed by years of dictatorship have resurfaced. The myth around the office of the head of state, forged by over a half-century of an all-powerful presidency, has returned in force and is exacerbating an ideological confrontation nurtured by old wounds: the brutal eradication of the Islamist movement under deposed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali; violent conflicts dating from the independence era (between supporters of the first president, Habib Bourguiba, and those of his sworn enemy, Salah Ben Youssef); antagonisms between social classes; rivalries between established elites (from Tunis and the east coast) and emerging ones (from the south and the hinterland).

Moreover, the respective allies of Marzouki and Essebsi see their confrontation as another battle in a regional cold war, notably over the Islamist question. Tunisia is thus an echo chamber of the ideological conflicts that are shaking the region, from the Syrian trauma and the rise of the Islamic State in the Levant to the violent polarisation in Libya and Egypt. The concerns of all parties – over the return of dictatorship and repression on one side, or reinforcement of the north/south divide and the spread of chaos on the other – are being amplified by the national sensitivity to the fate of other countries of the “Arab Spring”.

As a prelude to a charter of political accountability guaranteeing, among other issues, the preservation of democratic gains and a joint effort for greater balance between regions, the defeated candidate should, for example, address an open letter expressing his fears (and those of the electorate) to the winner, who would commit to respond publicly. Defining the fears of both sides could contribute to calming tensions, in particular if the scores of the two candidates are close.

Such a step could be followed by the commitment of the government, the presidency and the People’s Representative Assembly (the parliament) to address together the most widespread anxieties in society. Their adoption of a charter of political accountability informed by the presidential candidates’ exchange and addressing the fears of both the losing candidate’s base and other citizens would help Tunisia resolve the contradictions between order and liberty and overcome the inevitable challenges ahead. The international community should encourage such an initiative that would seek to prolong the spirit of consensus that prevailed for much of 2014 without masking the genuine disagreements that divide society. This would particularly help reduce the noxious fallout of regional polarisation. In the context of the meagre harvest of the “Arab Spring”, Tunisia remains the last hope for a successful democratic transition. The country and its allies have every reason to ensure that Tunisia continues on its exceptional course.

Tunis/Brussels, 19 December 2014

Tunisians hold placards during a protest against a controversial draft law on amnesty for corruption offences in the capital Tunis, 12 September 2015. AFP PHOTO/Sofienne Hamdaoi

Tunisia: Transitional Justice and the Fight Against Corruption

Polarisation over transitional justice after the 2011 fall of Tunisia’s old regime is obstructing basic progress. Accounting for past actions cannot include the early idea of “revolutionary justice”, but can become a tool to reconcile citizens, tackle corruption and give the economy a much needed new impetus.

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Executive Summary

Political tensions between supporters and opponents of Tunisia’s transitional justice process and of its application in the economic realm are delaying the implementation of policies necessary to stimulate the economy and tackle corruption. The process’ supporters view it as essential to keeping the revolutionary flame alive, reestablishing citizens’ trust in state institutions and promoting the rule of law, equitable development and reconciliation. From their side, its opponents see it as a remnant of a past political context and an obstacle to economic recovery. Compromises will be needed to reconcile these two camps as well as strengthen government efforts to root out corruption and economically integrate regions most neglected under the former regime.

After the fall of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011, Tunisia’s new political actors implemented a politicised, often arbitrary and thus haphazard, form of justice; comprising a variety of ad hoc and extrajudicial measures, this process could be described as “revolutionary justice”. The former regime’s victims were able to receive material and symbolic reparations, while businessmen believed to have been implicated in corruption had assets seized, faced trials (many of which are still pending) or were blackmailed.

In December 2013, a Truth and Dignity Commission (Instance vérité et dignité, IVD) was established to implement a comprehensive transitional justice mechanism anchored in the law, informed by the evolution of transitional justice theory and its use in other countries, and enshrined in Tunisia’s new constitution (enacted in January 2014). The Troïka government in power at the time (composed of political forces in opposition or in exile during the Ben Ali era) supported the move.

After Tunisia’s political landscape changed in December 2014, official support for the IVD began to crumble. The newly consecrated parliamentary and governmental alliance between Nida Tounes, a secular movement that has given a second political life to former regime members, and the Islamist party An-Nahda (a former Troïka member) created a political balance that has favoured selective amnesia over remembrance.

During the second half of 2015, public debate about the transitional justice process became both more prominent as well as more polarised. In July, President Béji Caïd Essebsi proposed an economic reconciliation bill reducing the IVD’s prerogatives. The most determined opponents of the bill, which has been shelved for now but could yet re-emerge in a new form, argue it would absolve those implicated in corruption and thus underscore victory by the “counter-revolution”. Use of this latter term points to the revival of Tunisia’s traditional socio-economic elite, mainly hailing from the capital and the east coast, which was weakened by the 2010-2011 revolution.

The bill’s supporters – including An-Nahda, which is torn between its revolutionary ideals as a former opposition movement and its determination to preserve the fragile coalition with Nida Tounes – view the implementation of transitional justice measures as a threat to stability. They want the IVD to abandon its pursuit of corruption cases stemming from the 1955-2013 period and instead focus exclusively on human rights violations.

Both sides must make concessions if this struggle is to be overcome. First, it will be necessary to resolve the misunderstanding that derives from the association of transitional justice – and the legitimate role it can play in relation to justice and reconciliation – with the ad hoc measures adopted during the “revolutionary justice” period, which some groups deem a witch hunt against businessmen and senior civil servants.

Second, given the deteriorating economic situation, the country cannot afford to wait for the IVD’s final recommendations in 2018-2019. It would be better for the government to support a law regularising under certain conditions the status of Tunisians implicated in corruption and tax evasion. Instead of entering into conciliation procedures that could create new opportunities for cronyism and blackmail, these Tunisians would have to entrust the inventory of their assets to certified public accountants, who would be held responsible for any false declarations, as a basis for a tax assessment and back payment.

To restart the economy, businessmen must be able to free themselves from the “revolutionary justice” measures which they claim have victimised them for the past several years. State agents accused of embezzlement under the previous regime should also be able to regularise their status. In exchange, both the presidency and the government should actively support the collaboration of other public institutions with the IVD, and ensure its activities, in particular its public hearings, are disseminated.

In parallel, the government should quickly formulate and implement measures to fight cronyism, nepotism and corruption; prioritise dialogue between regions, specifically between entrepreneurs in border areas, the Sahel (northern part of the east coast) and the capital; and institute new transparency mechanisms for public tenders.

The aim should not be to modify the transitional justice mechanism rooted in the January 2014 constitution but to find a middle ground that increases political elites’ confidence in it, so that the IVD’s work can take place in a more auspicious environment. Contrary to a widespread preconception, encouraging the implementation of the transitional justice process is in the current political class’s interest. Renewing political support for it and accompanying it with immediate reforms to prevent the spread of corruption would reduce the risks of polarisation and help prevent Tunisians’ complete disillusionment with politics.

Tunis/Brussels, 3 May 2016