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Tunisia: Transitional Justice and the Fight Against Corruption
Tunisia: Transitional Justice and the Fight Against Corruption
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 137 / Middle East & North Africa

Tunisia: Violence and the Salafi Challenge

As Tunisia faces the most critical phase of its transition after Chokri Belaïd’s assassination, its leaders must devise a calibrated response to the various challenges posed by the rise of Salafism.

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Executive Summary

The assassination of Chokri Belaïd, a prominent opposition politician, has thrown Tunisia into its worst crisis since the January 2011 ouster of President Ben Ali. Al­though culprits have yet to be identified, suspicions swiftly turned to individuals with ties to the Salafi movements. Founded or not, such beliefs once again have brought this issue to the fore. Many non-Islamists see ample evidence of the dangers Salafis embody; worse, they suspect that, behind their ostensible differences, Salafis and An-Nahda, the ruling Islamist party, share similar designs. At a time when the country increasingly is polarised and the situation in the Maghreb increasingly shaky, Tunisia must provide differentiated social, ideological and political answers to three distinct problems: the marginalisation of young citizens for whom Salafism – and, occasionally, violence – is an easy way out; the haziness that surrounds both An-Nahda’s views and the country’s religious identity; and the jihadi threat that ought to be neither ignored, nor exaggerated.

As elsewhere throughout the region, the Salafi phenomenon has been steadily growing – both its scripturalist component, a quietist type of Islamism that promotes immersion in sacred texts, and its jihadi component, which typically advocates armed resistance against impious forces. It made initial inroads under Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime, a response to the repression inflicted on Islamists in general and An-Nahda in particular. A new generation of young Islamists, relatively unfamiliar with An-Nahda, has become fascinated by stories of the Chechen, Iraqi and Afghan resistance.

All that was changed by the 2010-2011 uprising. Scripturalist Salafis, rather discreet and loyal under Ben Ali, began to both vigorously promote their more doctrinaire ideas and pressure An-Nahda, notably on the role of Sharia (or Islamic law) in the new constitution. For their part, jihadis back armed struggle outside of Tunisia, even recruiting fighters for the cause, notably in Syria. Yet they claim to have renounced violence in their own country. Tunisia, they assert, no longer is a land of jihad. It is a land of preaching in which jihadis should take root peacefully, taking advantage of general disorder and the emergence of lawless areas in order to advance Islamic law. As a result, non-Islamists have grown more and more anxious, many among them accusing An-Nahda of conniving with the Salafis and of sharing their ultimate goals.

For now, despite the former regime’s ouster, the security vacuum, economic problems, strikes and various protest movements as well as the release and return from exile of numerous jihadis, Tunisia has experienced neither armed conflict, nor widespread violence nor major terrorist attacks. Most instances of Salafi violence – the most striking of which was the 14 September 2012 assault on the U.S. embassy – have been more dramatic than deadly. An-Nahda played no small part, helping to avert the worst thanks to its prudent management of radical religious groups through a mix of dialogue, persuasion and co-optation.

Yet, such management has its limitations. An-Nahda finds itself in an increasingly uncomfortable position, caught between non-Islamists who accuse it of excessive leniency and laxity in dealing with the security threat and Salafis who denounce it whenever it takes a harder line. Based on circumstances – a flare-up in violence or a wave of arrests – the party is condemned by either the former or the latter. An-Nahda itself is divided: between religious preachers and pragmatic politicians as well as between its leadership’s more flexible positions and the core beliefs of its militant base. Politically, such tensions give rise to an acute dilemma: the more the party highlights its religious identity, the more it worries non-Islamists; the more it follows a pragmatic line, the more it alienates its constituency and creates an opening for the Salafis.

There is not much doubt that the non-Islamist opposition has displayed excessive and premature alarm and that it sometimes levels unsubstantiated accusations. Nor is there much question that it is finding it hard to accept the reality of Islamists governing their country. But the fact that they are exaggerated does not mean that these fears are baseless. Rather, it means that one must clearly define and distinguish them, and offer finely-tuned remedies. To arbitrarily lump together incidents linked to poverty and unemployment, attempts to impose a strict moral order, a political assassination and jihadi violence would only draw Salafis toward their more radical wings.

The first trend involves the growing presence of militant Salafis in poor neighbourhoods. They have stepped in to fill the vacuum created by atrophying public services in marginalised areas; in some places, they have become key economic actors. They are known to help with schooling and serve as mediators in local conflicts, administrative issues and even marital problems. In many poor villages and urban centres, they are deeply engaged in the informal economy.

The second trend has to do with the spread of a more dogmatic form of religious expression, signalling a tug of war between two conceptions of Islam, one more and the other less tolerant. Initially relatively minor, vigilante-style violence has become increasingly commonplace; some citizens are reluctant to conduct their business publicly, fearful of provoking the Salafis’ ire. The Salafis’ influence also is manifested through their control over places of worship and of learning. An-Nahda wagers that this radicalisation of religious discourse is a temporary phenomenon, the unavoidable letting-out of pent-up frustrations after years of repression. It is confident that, by integrating the Salafis into the political system, they will become more moderate. But many party critics view this as a risky gamble that will hasten society’s gradual Islamisation from below.

The third trend concerns the existence of armed groups. They have yet to conduct large-scale operations. True, many Tunisian jihadis have been departing for Syria, Mali or Algeria, where they constituted a large portion of the hostage-takers at the In Amenas gas plant. But most jihadis seem willing to focus on proselytising in Tunisia and, at least for now, are not prepared to engage in more serious violence on its soil.

Yet this could get worse. Instability in the Maghreb, porous borders with Libya and Algeria, as well as the eventual return of jihadis from abroad, could spell trouble. Already, the government has had to harden its stance given the rise in violent incidents; the jihadis’ tougher discourse vis-à-vis An-Nahda; and growing pressure from parts of public opinion, elements within the interior ministry and, in the wake of the attack on their ambassador, the U.S. As a result, relations between Salafi jihadis and An-Nahda followers have deteriorated. This could lead to a vicious cycle between intensified repression and Salafi radicalisation.

The government and An-Nahda face considerable challenges, made all the more urgent by Chokri Belaïd’s murder. The most immediate task is to resolve the current political crisis. Beyond that, it will be to devise responses calibrated to these distinct problems while avoiding a cookie-cutter approach that would stigmatise the most devout of their citizens; provide greater coherence to an increasingly cacophonous religious space while reassuring secularists; bolster law and order without embracing an exclusively security agenda and while reforming the police and judiciary; and, finally, strengthen cooperation with neighbouring countries in a tense and chaotic context.

In the absence of an appropriate answer by the authorities and the dominant Islamist party, violence in all its shades – whether tied to social, demographic, urban, political or religious causes – could well cross a perilous threshold.

Tunis/Brussels, 13 February 2013

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