Tunisia's faltering steps towards progress

By Lilia Blaise

The recent decision to end the ban on Tunisian women marrying non-Muslims has been broadly welcomed by progressives in the North African country. But that move followed a controversial law to pardon corrupt civil servants, judges, minsters and ambassadors who served under the regime of ousted strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Meanwhile the current president Béji Caid Essebsi is publicly debating the need to change the country's 2014 Constitution to increase “stability”. Lilia Blaise reports.

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A new law granting an amnesty against corruption proceedings to civil servants, judges, ministers and ambassadors who served under the old regime has been passed by the Tunisian Parliament. The controversial legislation was passed on Wednesday September 13th by 117 votes against nine, with one abstention, despite protests from some opposition MPs who disrupted proceedings.

The measure, which aims to bring about “reconciliation”, provides a “pardon” for around 2,000 figures who have been targeted by the justice system for alleged corruption under the rule of Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He was ousted in 2011 at the start of what became known as the Arab Spring.

Cartoon attacking the new amnesty law and suggesting it has led to the final 'winding up' of the Assembly (the ANC) and the 2011 Revolution. Cartoon attacking the new amnesty law and suggesting it has led to the final 'winding up' of the Assembly (the ANC) and the 2011 Revolution.

Though supported by the ruling Nidaa Tounes party and, in the end, by the Islamic party Ennahda, the measure has attracted criticism inside the country. “This law risks reactivating the networks of those bureaucrats who worked on behalf of business groups close to Ben Ali and his wife. At the moment many of them are sidelined within the administration, some are trying to sabotage it; several hundred have gone to prison and would like to get back into the civil service,” says Michaël Ayari, a senior analyst on Tunisian affairs at International Crisis Group, an independent conflict-resolution organisation.

The number of people likely to be covered by the terms of this new law has varied over the years from between 2,000 to 9,000 and the precise figure remains uncertain. A presidential advisor quoted by news agency AFP said the legislation was needed to encourage the civil service to take decisions which had been blocked through officials' fears of reprisals. But the advisor also said the measure would kick-start the economy. “In the regions today only 35% of the allocated budget (for disadvantaged regions) has been spent,” said the advisor. “Why? Because officialdom is afraid … a lot of employees are blocking public projects.” Without explaining how, he said the law could thus lead to “1.2% extra growth for Tunisia”. Corruption itself is said to cost the country close to two billion euros a year.

The original text of the amnesty law covered corrupt business people and tax evaders but its scope was subsequently reduced. For Tunisian civil society its passing is also highly symbolic. Many see it as ending the last hopes of the 2011 revolution that the country could finally find true justice, and as scuttling the process of judicial transition overseen by the country's Truth and Dignity Commission, which was established in 2014.

It's very worrying for those of us in civil society,” says Lamine Benghazi, who is in charge of Marsad, a project run by the Tunisian NGO Al Bawsala and which scrutinises the work of Parliamentarians. “It comes against the backdrop of a ministerial reshuffle with some members of the former regime [returning] and the law has dropped at a time when we have a president [editor's note, Béji Caid Essebsi] who is questioning the Parliamentary system we live under, even though we haven't even had the time to try it out.”

Tunisian MPs voting for the amnesty on September 13th, 2017. © DR Tunisian MPs voting for the amnesty on September 13th, 2017. © DR
Just before the new amnesty law was passed President Béji Caid Essebsi had put forward proposals to advance women's rights in the country. In particular he backed reforming the Koran-based law which allows a man to inherit more than a woman, and the circular which bans marriage between a Tunisian woman and a non-Muslim. This latter decree was duly annulled by the Ministry of Justice on Thursday September 14th, the day after the amnesty law vote.

But behind these declarations, seen by many as progressive, the Tunisian president is also playing his own political game. On September 6th he told two Tunisian newspapers that “the current political system cannot ensure the development and stability of the country” and that the 2014 Constitution might need to be revised. “It's time to evaluate the constitutional system in force with the aim of putting right the deficiencies and overcoming the obstacles contained in the Constitution,” President Caid Essebsi said.

The Tunisian head of state implied, too, that the independent bodies that had been created after the 2011 revolution have too much power. “To sum up, today in Tunisia we have a 'distinctive' political regime where we fret about the independence of bodies to the point of blocking and paralysing the country. Under this regime some independent bodies benefit from such exceptional prerogatives they pay no heed to the authority of the state and constitutional intuitions, including Parliament, the primary bearer of power in the current political system,” he said. Some observers fear that in the light of these declarations, the passing of the amnesty law may just be the prelude to a return to the country's authoritarian habits of old.

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