Since May 2017, Tunisia has ramped up a serious anti-corruption campaign. A series of arrests and investigations have targeted businessmen, politicians, police and customs officers. These bold actions, spearheaded by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, could get rid of Tunisia’s “kleptocracy” and empower civil society to fight corruption. Yet despite widespread praise for these efforts, they also risk inflaming elite tensions, and the authoritarian approach to the crackdown could restrict the freedoms necessary for a robust democracy.
Every government in Tunisia since 2011 has tasked itself to fight corruption, with limited results. Corruption instead worsened: According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the country fell from rank 59 out of 178 in 2010 to 73 in 2011 and 79 in 2013, slightly improving to 75 in 2016. It was the largest complaint Tunisians had about their country, and Tunisia’s international partners likewise became impatient with the increase in corruption, which was hindering economic reforms. The Carthage Agreement – the framework for Youssef Chahed’s National Unity Government, formed in August 2016 – listed fighting corruption as its third priority. However, few expected Chahed to take action, especially as his own Nidaa Tounes party has opaque sources of funding that many suspected perpetuated corruption.
In an interview on Oct. 23, 2016, Chafik Jarraya – a businessman-turned-politician whose influence and wealth increased drastically after 2011, leading many Tunisians to suspect corruption – said that Chahed was so weak that “he could not even send a young goat to jail.” Ironically, he was the first to fall when Chahed began his sudden war on corruption, which has largely involved making arrests and freezing assets. On May 23, members of the National Guard arrested Jarraya on charges of “attacking the integrity of the state,” seemingly related to his visit to Geneva the week prior, during which the Tunisian authorities suspected he had arranged to send arms to Libya’s Islamist groups. The same day, the National Guard then arrested Yassine Chennoufi, another businessman and former presidential candidate, for corruption, embezzlement and endangering state security, as well as seven other businessmen and a customs officer.
In the following days, more arrests were made, including Saber Laajili, the general director of Tourist Police, seemingly in connection to Jarraya; three directors of the penitentiary police accused of giving and taking bribes; and Samir el-Wafi, a controversial television host, also arrested for taking bribes. On June 14, Chahed fired 21 suspected corrupt customs officials and ordered an internal investigation against 35 others during a surprise visit to Rades, the main port of Tunis, notorious for smuggling. This wave of investigations continued on June 28, when authorities froze the assets of businessman and politician Slim Riahi, who is the founder and president of the Free Patriotic Union, a former candidate in the 2014 presidential election, and president of Club Africain, one of the two most important Tunisian football clubs, on suspicions of laundering money via Libyan banks. Separately, a customs officer and six businessmen had their assets frozen as well on June 30.
Some of those targeted were close to Nidaa Tounes or Ennahda, whose leaders were taken by surprise. For instance, Jarraya is on good terms with both parties, and is particularly close to Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the head of Nidaa Tounes, and helped finance the party’s electoral campaign in 2014. On May 24, the first political party to support Chahed’s “war on corruption” was instead Afek Tounes, a smaller member of the ruling coalition. It took Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda several more hours to absorb the initial shock of the first 10 arrests and cautiously express support for the campaign once they saw how popular it was among Tunisians.
Chahed appears to be swimming away from the political consensus that brought him to power. His relations with Essebsi were already tense, and he rarely meets with the leadership of Ennahda. In unilaterally pursuing anti-corruption efforts, Chahed is provoking further divisions inside Nidaa Tounes, which was already suffering from weekly resignations among party members and donors. And although neither party has tried to stop the campaign, some of their leaders issued public criticisms on how it has been carried out, such as Mohamed Ben Salem, a member of Ennahda’s Shura Council.
Additionally, others remain unconvinced that the campaign is serious in stamping out all corruption. In fact, most of those who have been targeted since May belong to the post-2011 nouveaux riches, an “emerging elite” largely from Tunisia’s marginalized regions and partially separate from Tunisia’s established elite. In contrast, some of the controversial families and figures from the pre-2011 elites from Tunis and other east coast (Sahel) cities are also suspected of such crimes as smuggling, nepotism and tax evasion – yet remain largely untouched. If the arrests continue in this pattern, Chahed’s war on corruption could turn into a battle of clans, which would sideline many of his current backers, especially among civil society and youth. It could also increase feelings of frustration and marginalization (hogra) in the marginalized regions from which many of the emerging elites hail: Most smugglers, for instance, work in the poor border regions, where they have built a strong social base. It is possible that locals may come to regard the arrested smugglers as victims of an unjust system, unfair to their regions, which would in turn lead to hatred toward the state.
Moreover, the government has communicated very little about its war on corruption. Apart from a few comments by Chahed and his ministers, there have been no speeches to date, and no clear anti-corruption strategy was announced. One parliamentary session dedicated to discussing the actions has been scheduled for July 20, but only after two months have passed since the campaign began. This goes against the principles of the Carthage Agreement and has increased speculation, especially among those already skeptical and critical of his campaign, that Chahed is deliberately avoiding cracking down on certain traditional elites.
Despite this lack of transparency – and even though the arrests were carried out under the state of emergency in place since November 2015, almost illegally – Chahed’s war on corruption has also been popular among the international community. Notably, these arrests were planned in secrecy by a core group of Chahed’s confidants. Charges were issued by a military tribunal, not a civilian judge, and arrests were carried out by the National Guard, not the police. Most usual human rights advocates have remained silent on this issue, and several anti-corruption organizations, such as the National Anti-Corruption Authority and I Watch (Transparency International’s Tunisia branch), supported the campaign.
The government has also increased scrutiny on NGOs, giving them one month from June 12 to disclose their foreign funding – though there have been no reported follow-up actions taken against NGOs since the deadline passed on July 12. This follows a crackdown in 2014 on Islamist-affiliated NGOs getting funding from shady sources, some of which were suspected of funding terrorism – and the media has sensationalized a few smaller cases since then. However, this makes it more difficult for most active NGOs, which tend to be small, new and fragile, to find funding and attract employees. Moreover, if the government scrutiny escalates to repression in the name of fighting corruption or protecting national security, NGOs critical of the government risk being shut down, as has happened in Egypt. Furthermore, the continued use of the state of emergency to justify the military arrests and tribunals could undermine Tunisia’s civilian institutions and its decades-old tradition of semicivilian rule. Such authoritarian measures to stamp out corruption, if used frequently, will destroy whatever achievements Tunisia has made in the fields of human rights, freedom of expression and rule of law, and send the country back to the arbitrary police state it used to be before 2011.
Youssef Cherif is a Tunisian commentator and consultant on North African politics. Follow him on Twitter @faiyla. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 21, 2017, on page 7.