Rooting Out Corruption in Tunisia: A Youth Leader’s Perspective


In December 2010, ordinary people across Tunisia took to the streets to demand an end to economic exclusion and to the repressive and corrupt rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  In a matter of 28 days, the government buckled under the pressure, and Ben Ali resigned from office and fled the country on January 24, 2011. These events, known as the “Jasmine Revolution,” would spark the wider “Arab Spring” in the region. 

The following October, Tunisia held its first free elections since its independence in 1956. In it, voters chose the founding members of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly, which was tasked with drafting a new constitution. In December 2013, the assembly passed the Transitional Justice Act to address abuses committed by the Ben Ali regime. Alongside specialized chambers to pursue criminal accountability for serious crimes, and reparative measures for victims, the act established the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) to investigate human rights violations and large-scale corruption crimes. 

Tunisia’s transitional justice process is generally considered to be among the first of its kind to tackle both human rights violations and corruption crimes in an integrated and systematic manner. Earlier transitional justice processes in other countries largely focused on physical integrity and civil and political violations, often looking past widespread, systematic corruption or dealing with it inadequately or in a cursory fashion. Endemic corruption, however, is frequently an underlying cause of conflict, exacerbating social and economic marginalization and fueling grievances that can lead to violence. Moreover, perpetrators almost invariably commit human rights abuses in concert with corruption crimes. Impunity for one all too often reinforces impunity for the other.

The fight against corruption in Tunisia, however, has not been limited to formal transitional justice process or dedicated state institutions. Since the revolution, youth activists have played a vital role in keeping corruption and other economic injustices at the center of public debate. Through decentralized, nationwide protest movements, young Tunisians have been calling for measures that root out systems of endemic corruption and lay the foundation for a more equitable socioeconomic model. Among the youth activists who have been influential in Tunisia is Leila Riahi. She is a founding member of the Ma Galoulnech (“We Were Not Told”) and Manish Msamah (“I Will Not Forgive”) movements in Tunisia — youth groups advocating for accountability, justice, and anti-corruption measures. Leila will participate in a panel discussion at ICTJ’s upcoming conference in Tunis on March 2-3 on the role of transitional justice in combatting corruption and recovering ill-gotten assets. 

ICTJ’s Christopher Boland caught up with Leila at a recent ICTJ workshop in Tunis focused on young activists’ perception of current efforts to hold individuals accountable for corruption. They sat down to discuss her activism and views on Tunisia’s transitional justice process.

Christopher Boland: Let’s start with your journey. How did you get involved in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary anti-corruption movements?

Leila Riahi: I am a teacher at the School of Architecture. I left Tunisia to do my thesis in France. It was interesting to be away from the events of my country at that time; it was starting to become tense in the regions of Gafsa. Perhaps because of the distance, I was more interested in public affairs in Tunisia than when I was actually living there. And it aligned with the beginning of this new wave of mobilization in Tunisia that would become the revolution and fall of Ben Ali in 2011.

After the election, I returned to Tunisia. Back home, I actually began to place myself in different positions of observation. Then the first World Social Forum was held in Tunisia, just after the revolution. So, it was in this whole political and activist sphere — with people from several countries, from the alter-globalization movement — that I began to get involved in the social movements and work on the issue of economic policy.

From 2013, I focused on public policies and analysis or rather observation of what had been done by the international financial institutions in Tunisia, analyze the debt process, the reforms: There were a lot of reforms between 2013 and 2016 in Tunisia that affected the economic system, making it more liberal, for example, the introduction for example of public-private partnerships, the change of the legal frameworks of investment, and the independence of the central bank. So, several of these liberalization and austerity reforms were influenced by the IMF, the World Bank, and various other institutions.

Christopher: What was your role in the “We Were Not Told” anti-corruption movement?

Leila: It was in 2013, it was the very beginning of the negotiations of an agreement between Tunisia and the IMF. It was also right after the World Social Forum, so there was a dynamic synergy bringing people together who had the same interest in these public issues. We worked together on a case file to explain the effects that these steps being taken during the transition period would have for Tunisia.

The group and I started paying attention to the reforms that were being drafted. Why so many reforms? What are the real objectives of these reforms? And what are the expected results of these reforms on Tunisian society? So that was the heart of this campaign. We could not stop. This seemed obvious to me. But for us, it was important to bring the issue to the public debate and also to the National Assembly. Our elected officials were completely disconnected in the assembly.

Christopher: What do you make of the Truth and Dignity Commission [TDC]? What did it accomplish? 

Leila: Did I think that the TDC happened to change the system? We cannot know now. Maybe in a few years, we will know if the work done by TDC has made it possible to rewrite Tunisian history, which was completely distorted by the powers that be in all their forms in the writing of history.

In elementary school, we learned the history of the country. We said things that are not true and now I know it. But we had to investigate to understand if what my schoolteacher told me was right or wrong about the history of my country. I think the TDC could play an important role in the retelling of history.

Leila Riahi (right) converses with ICTJ's Ruben Carranza during a break at an ICTJ workshop on youth activism and the fight against corruption in Tunisia on July 10, 2019. (ICTJ)

Christopher: Were you disappointed with the TDC?

Leila: Yes, of course, the deception or the satisfaction of what an institution does are timebound feelings and with the TDC, for example, the disappointing events exceeded the satisfying ones.

That said, the TDC is not truly an enemy; it is not an institution that “attacks.” Rather, it is a friend who did not have bad intentions compared with what we were expecting. There are positive and negative aspects….

Would we have gotten everything we wanted if the TDC had been able to have more serene and unaffected working conditions? It could not have been so as long as the apparatus of corruption was still there since the apparatus of corruption is the main engine of political parties that compete for power in reality…. Faced with this, how can we combat corruption if we spare the system that produces the corruption and if we create institutions [such as the TDC] that do not have the force and that don’t even have the necessary legal basis?

Christopher: Where do you see accountability for past crimes, particularly corruption-related crimes, playing a role in post-revolutionary Tunisia?

Leila: I think we missed the chance to make examples out of those responsible in Tunisia and to apply justice. This is an opportunity we missed.

Today, what can we do? We must spend the necessary time and put in the necessary energy to break down the system and understand how it works for the elites. To neutralize them, to neutralize the mechanisms of corruption, it first requires understanding how they have emerged, remove the reasons they are there, and imagine a system that does not allow such corruption again.

Christopher: So far, what results have Tunisia’s transitional justice processes yielded, in terms of the fight against corruption?

Leila: Generally speaking, for me, it’s dramatic; it’s negative. Really, corruption has increased, the system of corruption itself has spread.

Today, it is the most corrupt individuals who finance political campaigns. Politicians today are at the mercy of the oligarchy and mafia. Before, Ben Ali had the opportunity to choose the corrupt players with whom he wanted to work and distribute the benefits: “I'll give you control over this land,” “I'll give you a specific law that allows you to access a market with a monopoly.” Now, it’s the corrupt, the mafia, and the cartels who decide: “Him, we’ll encourage him to be president or minister. Him, we’ll break him, so he isn’t in power anymore,” for example.

Christopher: In this context, given these obstacles, what is the next step? What should be done?

Leila: At the theoretical level, we will have to start by redefining the Tunisian system in terms that clearly explain how certain public policies lead to a system based on an economic model that favors certain types of corruption. We will have to consider these terms within a theoretical framework analyzing how everything works: Do social classes interact with corruption in the same way? Is it the case that certain social classes use corruption, have an interest in perpetuating corruption? I am convinced that there really is a social class that has interest today in Tunisia to maintain the current [corrupt] system.

Practically speaking, today, what can we activists do? On the issue of [national] debt, for example, it is important to conduct a debt analysis, a social audit of this debt, which would make it possible to draw the links between the phenomena of corruption and the reasons and the causes that feed it — the public policy decisions that feed it…. By analyzing the debts that Tunisia has taken on to put forward its development model, it becomes clear that, in reality, [the corrupt system] is not fortuitous; it is not by chance. It is organized of in such a way as to fuel an economic model based on what favors a certain class of people.

Christopher: Looking ahead, do you still have hope for Tunisia, that the country will make good of the promises of the revolution?

Leila: Not for now, it’s going to take time. First, we have to break the paradigms. We have to first figure out how the Tunisian political world works today: Whether it’s the people in government or the opposition, how do they work? So, we are still far from asking about the right problems that need to be solved. This will require redefining the country’s political workings and bringing forth new forces to the conversation and to public light…. Above all, we must explain the relationship between economic injustices and the global system.


PHOTO: Protesters belonging to the youth-led Kamour movement join the Manich Msa-mah march on May 13, 2017, in Kamour, Tunisia. (Manich Msamah)