Image Source: Piaser
October 2017
REGION: Middle East and North Africa

In Tunisia’s Corruption Contagion: A Transition at Risk, authors Sarah Yerkes and Marwan Muasher detail Tunisia’s struggle to fight corruption since the 2011 revolution. Prior to 2011, corruption in Tunisia was centralized, under the control of former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In recent years, corruption in Tunisia has shifted to a decentralized and widespread epidemic evident in the lives of everyday Tunisians. The authors suggest two main reasons for Tunisia’s failure to combat corruption since the revolution: first, the lack of a unified anti-corruption approach between Tunisian government officials and civil society; and second, the government’s top-down approach excluding civil society actors and hindering public buy-in. To effectively combat the widespread corruption, the authors stress the importance of a unified effort between both government and civil society.

The impacts of corruption are evident in the economic, security, and political sectors. Corruption affects the economy by deterring foreign direct investment from countries with greater anti-corruption measures, such as the United States and European countries. Corruption also erodes the trust between the government and its citizens and directly threatens security by facilitating the trafficking of weapons, drugs, and humans through lax border controls. In addition, terrorist groups such as ISIS thrive on corruption, feeding on the mistrust citizens may have toward government officials and promising to fight corrupt leaders. These terrorist groups may target Tunisian youth who feel cheated by nepotism in the job market, for example.

When prioritizing the fight against corruption, government officials and civil society actors approach the task differently, often directly undermining each other’s plan of action. Government officials focus heavily on stopping and preventing post-revolution corruption, while civil society actors wish to see punishment and reconciliation for past crimes under the Ben Ali regime. With a revolution driven largely by civil society, many civil society actors feel as though they are now being excluded from the corruption fighting process as anticorruption efforts take a top-down, rather than bottom-up, approach. This disconnect between government and civil society has led to dissatisfaction with many “well-meaning anticorruption measures” on both sides.

Although often unpopular with many, the Tunisian government has begun to take substantial steps to fight corruption. The Law on Administrative Reconciliation is one example of a largely unpopular governmental approach. The law provides amnesty to some civil servants guilty of economic crimes under the Ben Ali regime and has sparked widespread criticism of the war on corruption led by President Beji Caid Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed. Civil society actors fear that this war on corruption has focused too much on smugglers and the customs sector and not enough on corruption in other sectors.

While there has been both criticism and praise for the government’s war on corruption, it cannot be denied that both civil society actors and the government have implemented several initiatives to fight corruption since 2011. Laws have been created aimed at public disclosure of assets, corruption reporting, and bribery including the National Anti-Corruption Authority (INLUCC) and the Truth and Dignity Body (IVD). The INLUCC, with the largest anti-corruption mandate, investigates all forms of corruption, fraud, waste, misuse of public funds, and money laundering. The INLUCC, however, faces a lack of financial support from the government, investigating only a small fraction of the cases on its docket. The IVD, in contrast, is relatively well funded and internationally supported, focusing on violations that occurred between 1955 and 2013. Fifteen members arbitrate, conduct criminal cases, and assemble specialized courts for relevant investigations. Despite such anti-corruption efforts, the authors say that many primary bodies largely lack the financial and personnel support to be effective.

Finally, the authors suggest a variety of recommendations for Tunisia that “do not require tremendous effort or resources.” Some recommendations include implementing and enforcing existing laws, prioritizing funding for anti-corruption bodies, and focusing more heavily on corruption in border regions. To strengthen enforcement of existing anti-corruption mechanisms, the authors recommend prioritization of a constitutional court, focusing less on corrupt individuals and more on corrupt processes, and enforcing the mandate of public declaration of assets. Additionally, the authors call on the international community to provide greater financial and diplomatic support to Tunisian anti-corruption bodies such as the INLUCC. The authors note that with proper funding from the international community, civil society may then push for governmental actions, such as tightening weak borders, creating job opportunities, and incentivizing entry into the formal economy. The authors note that, for Tunisia to combat corruption effectively, there must be a shared understanding between civil society and government. Without such unity, Tunisia runs the risk of even higher levels of corruption.

NOTE: This summary is produced by the Rule of Law Collaborative, not by the original author(s).

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