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Between economic reconciliation and penal settlement: Is there a genuine will to fight corruption in Tunisia?

Tunisia's new President Kais Saied takes the oath of office on 23 October 2019 in Tunis after his surprise election victory over champions of the political establishment. [FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images]
Tunisia's new President Kais Saied takes the oath of office on 23 October 2019 in Tunis after his surprise election victory over champions of the political establishment. [FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images]

The 25th of July 2021 was a watershed moment in the history of democracy in Tunisia, not only because it coincided with Republic Day celebrations but it was also the day on which the President of the Republic announced a set of extraordinary measures within the framework of invoking article 80 of the constitution as he considered that the country was passing through a phase of imminent danger that would make it impossible for state institutions to proceed normally.

Hence he decided to suspend parliament, dismiss the prime minister and monopolise all the powers of the government and parliament. Such measures were met with significant popular support, especially that the 25th of July witnessed popular protests in different regions calling for change, accountability and combating corruption and those implicated in it.

Those extraordinary measures divided the people and its elites, intellectuals and constitutional experts, into those who supported them and those who opposed them or expressed reservation.

Yet, what was noteworthy is that after announcing these measures, the President of the Republic announced a legislative initiative for approving a penal settlement with a number of businessmen. This has brought to mind, quite forcefully, the initiative of the late President Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi, which he had announced in July 2015 with regard to exceptional measures for effecting reconciliation in both economic and financial sectors.

The initiative was widely denounced at the time by rights organisations and parliamentary blocs, which considered it an attempt on the part of the president to whitewash corruption and enable impunity. Others considered that this project would be contrary to Tunisia's international obligations in the field of fighting corruption and that it would therefore have negative consequences on the political reforms that were supposed to be undertaken.

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Some may ask: What is new about the president's initiative for it to represent progress or difference compared to what had been previously proposed? In fact answering this question does not require much research. By closely examining the text of both projects we realise that there are no essential differences between the two projects, and that to the contrary there is great overlap between them. Let us start from the objective of both bills.

It is exactly that same objective, namely putting in place mechanisms to encourage investment and uplifting the national economy through the adoption of measures pertaining to cases of financial corruption. The same is true of those who stand to benefit from these mechanisms. In both proposals these are individuals indicted or suspected in cases of financial corruption and the misuse of public funds (Chapter two of both bills).

Both bills are based on the mechanism of settlement, which is a central mechanism in the process of economic reconciliation or penal settlement, which would take place under the supervision of a settlement or reconciliation committee. What is noteworthy is that this committee exists in both bills, though with relatively varying composition and different supervision.

In the economic reconciliation bill, the process is to be supervised by the Prime Minister whereas in the penal settlement bill, it would be under the supervision of the President of the Republic himself. As for the content of the settlement, it is almost the same in both initiatives and would take place in the form of paying a sum of money equivalent to the sum embezzled or the benefit achieved plus 5% for each year from the date when it took place.

This is almost the same essence with a very simple variation related to the added percentage, which is 10% in the case of the penal settlement bill, as well as the possibility of implementing a project, or projects, relating to public interest the cost of which is covered by the settlement sum of money. The two projects comprise articles that relate to how to dispense the money collected. It is almost the same mechanism with slight differences.

In the economic reconciliation bill, the collected money from implementing the settlement agreements would be deposited in the savings and trusts fund, which is under the supervision of the Court of Accounts. However, in the punitive settlement bill, a special fund would be created for this purpose under the supervision of the Presidency of the Republic. The two projects concur in that those sums of money would be allocated for regional development, providing infrastructural support and promoting investment.

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Both projects also concur in that settlement should lead to ending the public legal proceedings and halting proceedings or trial and dropping penalties.

A certificate to that effect would be handed over to the state's general prosecutor at the court of cassation or to the general prosecutors at the courts of appeal or general state prosecutors. Researching the points of similarity and overlap between the two bills is important for two reasons.

Is Tunisia slipping into a dangerous pitfall?- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Is Tunisia slipping into a dangerous pitfall?- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The first is to clarify that what the President of the Republic is proposing and considering to be necessary in order to resolve the question of corrupt businessmen and bring money into state coffers is an identical copy of what the late President Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi had proposed and was at the time considered to be whitewashing corruption.

The second reason, which is more important, is that what the President of the Republic considers to be a response to popular demands with regard to bringing to justice those who are corrupt and reclaim public funds, is nothing more than a settlement bill that leads to abolishing punishment and ending proceedings and consequently accountability.

Finally, we would say that what is being claimed by the supporters of the 25th of July measures, and what the President of the Republic considers to be a campaign against corruption and the corrupt is nothing but slogans and nothing but a facade for accomplishing objectives that are very far away from fighting corruption. These objectives may be summed up in the accumulation of all powers in the grip of one person, dismantling democratic and republican values and negating the principle of separation of powers and constitutional supremacy.

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Translated from Arabi21, 3 August 2021

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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