The convergence of a series of events in Tunisia is leading to fears that the country may be on the brink of a second uprising.
A civil disobedience campaign continues to rage in the southern governorate of Tataouine against perceived economic and social injustice at the hands of the Tunisian government and the foreign-owned oil and gas companies based there. President Beji Caid Essebsi’s speech on May 10, meant to calm tensions in the south, sparked anger when he announced that the military would be deployed to guard the oil and gas installations from the protesters.
On May 9 the upcoming municipal elections were placed in jeopardy when Chafik Sarsar, the head of the Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Élections (ISIE), the independent elections body, resigned with several of his deputies. Meanwhile, the reintroduction of a highly controversial economic reconciliation law sent hundreds, if not thousands, of Tunisians into the streets on May 13.
These issues dominated my trip to Tunis in mid-May when, during numerous meetings with activists, analysts, and international donors, it became clear that these different challenges were united by one thread: corruption. Economic injustice and rampant clientelism inspired the Tunisian revolution in 2010. Yet despite a serious and well-respected transitional justice process, corruption continues to impact Tunisia’s economic performance, political process, and security situation. And the fact that corruption has, in some cases, gotten worse over the past few years, feeds a public perception that Tunisia’s transition may be in danger.
PROTESTS BRING HOPE AND DESPAIR
I landed in Tunis as the latest round of the “Manish Msameh” (I Will Not Forgive) protests were taking place downtown. The protests targeted the parliament’s latest draft of the economic reconciliation bill, which would provide a form of amnesty and anonymity to individuals accused of corruption under the regime of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The primary architect of the law is Essebsi, whose own ties to the former regime have led many to question his motives in the matter.
In conversations with activists the day after the protests, I sensed optimism as well as a growing frustration. Tunisians who participated in the protests told me they felt “reenergized” about civil society’s ability to prevent the law’s passage. After all, they had succeeded in preventing its being passed in 2015 and 2016 by protesting and drawing attention to the law. One person with whom I spoke explained that the protests were one of the few remaining positive signs for democracy, representing a sincere movement with a clear purpose and large popular support throughout the country.
At the same time, protesters and their allies were angry that the few Tunisian media outlets that covered the protests downplayed the turnout. Participants cited figures in the 5,000–10,000 range, while media reports put the numbers in the hundreds. This was coupled with a general fatigue with protests I noticed among the Tunisian public. A few of my Tunisian interlocutors, who had participated in demonstrations in the past, this time preferred to spend the day at the beach or with friends instead.
While the geographic distance between Tataouine and Tunis has kept the civil disobedience movement in the south relatively contained, the common thread of economic injustice ties the two together. While the protesters in Tunis were calling for transparency in addressing the economic crimes and corruption of the Ben Ali regime, the protesters in Tataouine were demanding greater transparency in drilling contracts in their own backyard. The southern protesters’ demands include a variety of measures meant to ensure Tataouine benefits from the oil and gas production there.
Despite the resonance of economic injustice issues across Tunisia, there remain major divides, particularly between the young people of the north and south. One Tunisian who regularly visits the south explained that there is a general sense of “hogra,” or contempt, among southern youth. He said that young people in the southern regions do not see themselves as part of Tunisia and feel increasingly disconnected from the state, which makes them easy targets for extremist recruitment.
DECENTRALIZATION IS IN JEOPARDY
The main tool to address the growing feeling of discontent among Tunisians outside the coastal cities is the decentralization process. The municipal elections, scheduled for December 17, 2017, are meant to empower Tunisians across the country. The election process got off to a bumpy start, however, with multiple postponements. Prior to Sarsar’s resignation, Tunisians generally expressed optimism both that the elections would take place on time and that the decentralization process would help alleviate some of the structural imbalances between the coast and the interior.
However, by the time I arrived in the country, Tunisians had become more pessimistic about the ability of the ISIE to pull off the elections at all. As one analyst explained, even if the ISIE is cobbled back together again, to organize these elections in the next six months will be incredibly difficult. These are the largest elections the government has ever held and will require tremendous manpower to undertake.
Others expressed fear that without first passing the decentralization law, the municipal elections are “setting the stage for the government to further consolidate its power.” And as one young Tunisian told me, if the municipal elections do not take place in December it will be “a failure of the transition.”
Sarsar’s resignation has importance outside of the electoral process. When I asked people why he had resigned, almost everyone cited Sarsar’s concern about creeping corruption within the ISIE. According to a few people with whom I spoke, Sarsar was a reputable public servant who could no longer put up with the central government’s attempts to undermine his work. A Tunisian analyst described the ISIE as the “one and only functioning democratic body.” He said Sarsar’s resignation and the events that led to it are a “defeat for democracy.”
NO WAY FORWARD
The most troubling takeaway from my trip is that there is no clear way to address corruption in Tunisia. One of the major impediments to addressing the problem is that “corruption” has become a catchall term for Tunisia’s myriad economic and political problems. To different groups of Tunisians, corruption has very different meanings. For some, it means addressing the economic crimes and clientelist networks of the old regime. For others, it means tackling the culture of corruption that has grown since 2011 and dominates many interactions. As one person explained, under Ben Ali there was institutional corruption, but today there is “endemic and social corruption” that permeates daily life.
The clientelistic system built under Ben Ali was so deeply entrenched that it was not easily removed following the revolution. A Tunisian journalist described the revolution like a building where “instead of demolishing the structure, we just built additions onto the decaying façade.” And while transparency is a positive step towards countering corruption, greater transparency has actually made it more difficult in some ways for the government to address the problem. As one person explained to me, the level of corruption is not any higher than before 2011. But people are more aware of it today and are thus demanding that the government correct quickly and thoroughly the economic injustice issues that have come to light.
A second impediment is the growing levels of public anger and distrust of the government. According a recent poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI), only 1 percent of Tunisians surveyed rated the government’s performance as “very good” with another 26 percent rating it “good.” And 66 percent of people believed parliament was “doing nothing” to address their needs, with 64 percent saying the same of ministries. Only 13 percent of Tunisians surveyed had a “favorable” rating of Essebsi and only 10 percent viewed Prime Minister Youssef Chahed favorably.
Chahed has recently embarked on a “war against corruption,” the first battle of which was a series of high-profile arrests of businessmen accused of corrupt practices under the Ben Ali regime, including Chafik Jarraya. During several of my meetings Jarraya’s name came up as one of the worst symbols of the corruption of Tunisia’s political system. But the erosion of trust has left many Tunisians viewing Chahed’s actions as insincere. Additionally, because the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and Western donor countries have been pushing Tunisia to take a stronger stance on corruption, some Tunisians with whom I spoke believe international forces are manipulating Chahed. And a recent International Crisis Group report pointed to the “hidden influence” of the economic elite in Tunisia, impeding Chahed’s ability to implement necessary reforms.
The government’s actions over the past few years have fed perceptions that it does not take corruption seriously. For example, the economic reconciliation bill has become a symbol for the anti-government activists because the proposed law would circumvent the established transitional justice process put in place to adjudicate claims of economic and physical crimes committed under the Ben Ali regime. That is, to fight corruption, the government would enact what many see as a corrupt law.
According to the IRI poll, 85 percent of Tunisians surveyed listed “fight corruption and bribery” as a very good way to improve Tunisia’s economy—a higher percentage than any other option. Yet the National Authority for the Fight Against Corruption, already under-resourced, is potentially facing further budget cuts, according to someone with whom I spoke.
STAGNATION NOT UNREST
Despite some strong warning signs, Tunisia is not on the brink of massive unrest. Rather, the Tunisian transition is stagnating. Several people criticized Chahed as weak, ineffective, or insincere, but did not want to see him go. There are no clear successors to the prime minister. The country lacks political players with a strong appeal and powerful political base. And the outcome of the partnership between the two largest parties—Nida’ Tounes and Ennahda—is the watering down of the political system.
Additionally, there is a recognition that removing Chahed and replacing the government would come with a large opportunity cost that could cause more harm than good. A poorly performing and ineffective government may be preferable to yet another government changeover.
But stagnation could be as dangerous as instability. Unless the government and the public find a common language with which to discuss corruption and a series of measures to address it, failure to advance the transition could lead to a devastating cycle of frustration, anger, and resentment, further dividing the Tunisian people and their leaders.