In Tunisia, a New Reconciliation Law Stokes Protest and Conflict Instead

The law's backers say it will help the country move on. Its opponents say corrupt officials will get off scot-free. One thing's for sure: There's little reconciliation to be had.


In Tunisia, a newly proposed law has stirred controversy among politicians, anti-corruption activists, and ordinary people. On Sept. 12, opposition politicians, activists, and citizens took to the streets of downtown Tunis to protest the draft law, formally known as the Economic Reconciliation Law. Several hundred protesters marched down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the focal point of Tunisia’s 2011 uprising, holding signs that read “Your law is not about reconciliation; it is about impunity” and “We want accountability.” These defiant protesters show once again that the country’s decision-makers simply cannot go unsupervised. It is a sign of the key role civil society plays in post-revolution Tunisia as the watchdog of the politicians.

The bill that has stirred up all this anger calls for special measures to deal with the corruption that took place under the regime of toppled former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. It would provide amnesty to thousands of former government employees who were charged with financial crimes, including embezzlement.

At first glance, the new law seems a well-intentioned addition to Tunisia’s efforts to achieve justice for the excesses of the old regime. Its goal, as stated in its first article, is to “support the transitional justice apparatus, to ensure an appropriate investment environment, to develop the national economy, and to boost trust in state institutions.” In practice, the law would require former state employees to pay back money they embezzled from public funds or obtained through questionable loans. In return, the law would grant them an amnesty for their crimes. Any corruption charges filed against them would be dropped, and they would gain immunity from any further prosecution for those crimes. In some cases, former state employees who are currently imprisoned on corruption charges (excluding bribery) may be freed if the law passes.

In its 12 articles, the law stipulates the creation of a new committee that would include four representatives of the government and two representatives of the Truth and Dignity Commission, which was recently created on the basis of the country’s transitional justice law, passed in 2013. The new body would be tasked with examining requests for restitution submitted by former employees and businessmen and evaluating the sums of money to be repaid.

One of the main causes of the 2010 and 2011 uprisings was the systematic, large-scale corruption practiced by the former president, his family, and their entourage. After the revolution, a transitional justice apparatus (including a national Anti-Corruption Commission) was put in place in order to reveal these crimes, dismantle the previous regime’s corrupt practices (which went much deeper than just the people at the top), and suggest reforms. The transitional justice law created a framework for holding former regime criminals accountable and addressing human rights violations through the Truth and Dignity Commission. This commission is supposed to scrutinize corruption charges as well as human rights violations.

So far, so good. So why is the bill stirring up such a fuss? The reasons have to do with its timing and its content. The president’s office began pushing for the law in the immediate aftermath of the June 26 terrorist attack that left 38 people dead. Just to make matters worse, the law was proposed during the state of emergency declared by President Beji Caid Essebsi in August, which bans protests. 

Opposition lawmakers and Truth and Dignity Commission officials say the law compromises the transitional justice mechanisms that are already in place, which are equipped to deal with financial crimes. Sihem Ben Sedrine, the head of the Truth and Dignity Commission, considers the law an unnecessary parallel procedure that would only hinder the commission’s work. “This draft law would disrupt the transitional justice process and would lead to stripping the commission of its jurisdiction over revealing the truth, holding people accountable, and reconciliation,” she stated last week. Another problem with the law is its lack of clarity. Its second article makes only a vague distinction between different types of financial fraud that the amnesty would cover: While it includes embezzlement, it excludes bribery.

Furthermore, the law was proposed by the president without consulting anyone from civil society or the transitional justice system. Perhaps most egregiously, it would enable corrupt civil servants and businessmen to bypass the established transitional justice process, which entails investigating their files prior to referring them to the judiciary. This has fed suspicions that Essebsi, as a former regime figure himself, is attempting to help former regime employees escape consequences for their crimes.

“We are against the adoption of this draft law in its current version, as we believe it grants amnesty to the corrupt. It also helps create impunity at the political, social, and economic levels,” said Mouheb Garoui, executive director at I Watch, a local nonprofit organization that fights corruption. Garoui said the draft law gives privileges to certain citizens, which violates the constitutional right of equal treatment before the law.

The controversy about the law has thrown Tunisia into crisis — both inside and outside the government. In particular, it has created serious tensions between the ruling coalition and the opposition and has triggered a wave of protests in Tunis and other big cities. The president’s office, which initiated the bill, submitted it last week to parliament’s legislative committee. The bill is to be discussed by legislators for potential amendments, before they set a date to vote on it during a plenary session at the parliament. The controversy surrounding the draft law has, for the moment, prevented its deliberation. “Members of parliament will look into the draft law when the timing is right,” said Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Ennaceur enigmatically.

On Sept. 8, a parliamentary session was interrupted by yelling and arguing as members of the ruling coalition and the opposition exchanged accusations over the protests — and the subsequent crackdown — triggered by the draft law. Before Sept. 12’s large protest, several other protests in downtown Tunis were disrupted by police, and photos and videos of policemen using tear gas and protesters being assaulted by officers soon spread on social media. Interior Ministry spokesperson Walid Louguini explained that the protesters had not obtained legal permission to conduct a march.

Lawmakers from the ruling coalition have largely supported the draft law, though some are calling for it to be amended. A number of legislators representing the opposition, including the Democratic Current and the Popular Front, who were present at Sept. 12’s large protest, are demanding that the law be withdrawn outright and have encouraged further demonstrations. The Interior Ministry denied their official request a few days ago, however. While all members of parliament agreed to condemn police brutality and question the interior minister about banning peaceful protests, opposition members accused the ruling coalition, which includes the Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda parties, of using the state of emergency as an excuse to pass oppressive laws.

Those in favor of the bill argue that it will improve the ability of the transitional justice apparatus to deal with corruption much more quickly. And it is true that the existing Truth and Dignity Commission has come under attack from various quarters. It is slow, having only just begun to accept claims submitted by victims and examine them, while not yet managing to schedule any public hearings. No cases have been referred to court yet. It has also had many internal conflicts; at least three of the commission’s 13 members have resigned. And some political parties have alleged that the commission treats Islamists much more leniently because they were victims of the former regime.

“Tunisia is becoming Greece, and bankruptcy is awaiting,” said economic expert Moez Joudi, who spoke in favor of the draft law during a public debate. His main argument: Tunisia needs to be courting investors and businesspeople in order to save its struggling economy. “Not all businessmen were corrupt,” he said. “And public employees were sometimes forced to sign something that could lead to a financial crime.” The new law, according to Joudi, will give businesspeople the necessary legal clarity to allow them to make new investments.

Tarek Kahlaoui, a member of the opposition Congress for the Republic party, vehemently disagreed with Joudi’s arguments, describing the law as “the biggest hit to investment and the economy” and insisting that “international institutions such as the World Bank would agree.” Kahlaoui explained that those who would benefit from the law include specific people who were essentially promised innocence by Essebsi during his presidential campaign. “He’s helping them now,” he said.

While some oppose the bill for technical reasons, others reject it out of hand. “We do not support amending it,” said Garoui, the anti-corruption activist. “We support a national debate where all stakeholders will be invited to support transitional justice without exclusion. And youth should be given a voice in this dialogue.”

Tunisia’s transition has been assessed as successful by many international observers. Yet there are increasing worries that a stealthy return of the old regime could be threatening the country’s fragile democracy. In this respect, it is perhaps reassuring that Tunisian civil society is continuing to keep up pressure on the politicians.

In the photo, Tunisians demonstrate against the economic reconciliation bill on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis on Sept. 12, 2015.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Anis Mili

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