Tunisia has been a rare and extraordinary exception to the nearly universal culture of impunity across the Arab world. Tunisians made transitional justice—the judicial and non-judicial measures to redress the legacy of human rights abuses—a central plank of the post-revolutionary transition. The 2014 constitution enshrined transitional justice in its text, and the process was discussed widely in a series of dialogues held in every province of the country.
Since beginning its operations in 2014, a Truth and Dignity Commission (generally known by its French acronym IVD) has held hearings across Tunisia and has received more than 65,000 files on human rights cases. In a region where virtually none of the many state perpetrators of atrocities have ever been brought to justice, this is a remarkable achievement.
During my recent trip to Tunisia in late August, however, my conversations about transitional justice were dominated by a bruising political fight over a draft law designed to deal with economic crimes outside the transitional justice process. For now the IVD’s mandate includes economic crimes alongside human rights violations in its broad conception of abuses to dignity. Tunisians have certainly not forgiven or forgotten corruption. In the latest round of the widely respected Arab Barometer survey, more than 40 percent of Tunisians named corruption as one of the top two problems facing the country, and 80 percent thought there was at least some serious corruption within the state.
In the eyes of critics, the Economic Reconciliation Law presented by President Baji Caid Essebsi in July 2015 offered not accountability but a blanket amnesty, which betrayed the most central demands of the revolution. Victims were outraged. A coalition of some 24 civil society organizations dealing with transitional justice issues mobilized against it, drafting letters and lobbying parliament, while activists have held numerous public protests.
Human Rights Watch has warned that the law would set back the transition. Transparency International denounced it as allowing the corrupt to escape justice. The International Center for Transitional Justice has described it as legalizing stolen assets and forgiving corruption. In September 2015, the draft law provoked large public protests, forcing a delay in its passage.
Tunisia’s Parliament began debating the draft law again this June, and following the August 27, 2016, confirmation of a new prime minister, Youssef Chahed, Tunisia’s parliament is expected to move to push through the inflammatory legislation. Its defenders have argued that it is necessary to turn the page on the past in order to attract desperately needed foreign investment. The civil society coalition opposed to the draft law scoff at this argument on economic grounds, arguing instead that a reputation for democracy and transparency would do far more to attract investors. The moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, for its part, has defended its support for the draft law as an opportunity to reshape it from within as a more constructive and acceptable framework for dealing with past economic crimes. Many critics, in turn, accuse Ennahda of selling out to Nedaa Tunis, the governing party, out of self-interest to secure a place at the center of power.
The Economic Reconciliation Law has advanced in the context of a broader political struggle over the course of transitional justice. The IVD was created on a wave of revolutionary hope, but has since become bogged down in the difficult realities of transition. Many members of the old elite, which coalesced into the core of Nedaa Tunis, always opposed a transitional justice process that might expose its own crimes or threaten its social status. State institutions, still mostly populated by old-regime figures, resisted and undermined the IVD wherever they could, denying it access to resources and slowing down its work. Tunisian media, dominated by unreconstructed servants of the old regime and wealthy private investors, agitated against the IVD and its leaders at every opportunity.
The IVD also fell victim to the severe polarization between Islamists and their adversaries in spring 2013. The fact that so many victims of state abuse under Ben Ali were inevitably from the Islamist Ennahda movement became a political landmine as such questions came to dominate every facet of politics. The electoral victory of the anti-Islamist Nedaa Tunis and its leader Baji Caid Essebsi brought to power a coalition dominated by old elites firmly opposed to any accountability for past crimes. This government, in the view of a leading opposition politician, wants to “erase all gains of the revolution,” including transitional justice. Meanwhile, in line with Ennahda’s current political strategy, the party’s Rashed Ghannouchi told me that the transitional justice process should seek consensus rather than revenge.
The IVD has established itself despite this opposition and the polemics. The commission collected a substantial body of testimony by this summer’s cutoff point, and is working feverishly to meet its deadline for producing its report. But even its strongest defenders acknowledge that it has moved too slowly, falling rapidly behind the political times. As one leading politician told me, the commission’s members understand that they needed to do more to “make visible” the suffering that the IVD has systematically recorded in order to not become just another example of the failures of the revolution to deliver on its promises.
Despite all these political controversies, the significance of one of the first experiments in transitional justice in the Arab world should not be forgotten. The IVD at least promises a confrontation with the reality of historical repression which the Arab world has rarely seen. The IVD has already uncovered genuinely shocking levels of rape, abuse, and torture of Tunisian citizens by the state. It remains unclear whether these findings will end up only in a report documenting these horrors, or will lead to actual prosecutions of the guilty.
There seems to be a wide consensus that the Economic Reconciliation draft law, at least in its current form, offers the opposite of transitional justice. Its passage strikes many as vindication of the corrupt old elite and their victory over the hopes of genuine change. The arguments against the draft law are not purely about technical issues or political tactics. They go the heart of and the fundamental question of the possibility of meaningful change.
One senior Ennahda leader acknowledged the compromises that had been made, but shrugged them off as “the way politics works.” To many frustrated Tunisians, that is exactly the problem.