By Hafawa Rebhi
“Down with corruption!”
“The amnesty bill will not pass!”
Several hundred boisterous protesters took to the streets of Tunisia’s capital earlier this month to denounce a government-sponsored bill that opponents say would mark a step backwards in the North African state’s five-year struggle to emerge fully from dictatorship.
The demonstration by young activists never would have been permitted under the brutal dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia from 1987 until 2011, when a revolutionary wave of protests, riots and civil wars that began in the former French protectorate started sweeping over the Arab world.
But opposition to the economic reconciliation bill, especially among segments of youth and civil society who helped ignite the Arab uprising, underscores the challenges that Tunisia, considered by the West as a relative success story in the Arab Spring, faces in turning the page on its past.
The president says the bill would “turn the page on the past.”
President Beji Caid Essebsi introduced the economic reconciliation bill a year ago, saying the measure would spur investment, stimulate economic growth and strengthen confidence in state institutions.
The measure, now before parliament, would grant amnesty to public servants and businessmen for financial corruption, misuse of public funds and embezzlement committed during the 23-year dictatorship or in the five years since its end. In return, those granted amnesty would return stolen assets, plus interest.
The bill would “turn the page on the past,” President Caid Essebsi said.
Although there is no estimate of how much money might be returned to government coffers, the bill’s supporters, including right-wing parties, Islamists and business groups, say it would help plug the public deficit and spur economic growth by underwriting development projects.
Indeed, five years after Ben Ali’s downfall, Tunisia’s economy is struggling. Last year, which saw three dramatic terrorist attacks in the North African country, unemployment was 15.4 percent and the economy grew by a meager 0.8 percent, according to the World Bank. Public debt reached 52 percent of gross domestic product in 2015, up from 40 percent in 2010.
Nearly one third of university graduates are unemployed because of a chronic mismatch between educational degrees and labor demand. According to the influential Arab Institute of Business Owners think tank, while there are more than 145,000 jobs openings, 60 percent of the candidates do not meet the requirements.
The bill’s proponents say corruption under Ben Ali was endemic and a broad amnesty is needed so that Tunisia can start with a clean slate.
Letting criminals off the hook?
But a coalition of two dozen civil society associations and international NGOs grouped under the banner of Manich Msamah (“I do not forgive”) say the reconciliation bill would derail a difficult three-year campaign to uncover past human rights abuses.
That campaign established a transitional justice system and created a Truth and Dignity Commission to uncover human rights abuses committed between 1955 and 2013.
During Ben Ali’s reign, his family and friends diverted public funds and lands for their benefit and used state-owned banks, the judiciary and the police to punish those who resisted their business initiatives, Human Rights Watch said, citing a 2012 report by a national commission to investigate corruption.
The bill before parliament “would sabotage the mechanism Tunisia already put in place to address economic crimes through a mix of public truth-telling, restitution and judicial flexibility,” Human Rights Watch said.
Opponents of the proposed law say impunity cannot be a starting point for reconciliation and that amnesty would encourage public servants to steal more.
“Letting economic criminals off the hook will lead to more corruption,” Amna Guellali, Tunisia office director at Human Rights Watch, said.
Big investment conference in November
More than 65,000 victims who fought against Ben Ali’s regime have come before the Truth and Dignity Commission, according to Lawyers Without Borders.
The government-backed bill before parliament “would damage the transitional justice process and thus all Tunisians who in January 2011 forced the radical changes that were admired around the world,” the NGO said.
The economic reconciliation measure would empower a state-run commission to grant amnesty. Opponents doubt whether the commission could escape the government’s influence.
Tunisia’s government is in a hurry to have the bill approved before parliament goes into recess for summer holiday at the end of this month.
The government is set to host a major conference for international investors in November to promote Tunisia as a reliable, attractive and secure destination for foreign direct investment. It wants the amnesty law in place by then.
But following this month’s demonstration in the capital, Tunis, Manich Msamah is planning to extend its protests to outlying regions to press the same claim: No pardon before prosecution.
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Hafawa Rebhi is an independent Tunisian journalist. She has been covering the transition in Tunisia since 2011, with a special focus on public policies, social and economic rights, migration, development and energy. She is fluent in English, Arabic, French and Italian.