Work, Freedom, Dignity: For Young Tunisians, the Revolution Was Not Only About Accountability for Corruption

Ruben Carranza and Mohamed Azer Zouari
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Download the briefing paper in Arabic here.

On the evening of May 17, 2017, ordinary Tunisians heard for the first time a Ben Ali family member admit to how the family had committed large-scale corruption crimes during Ben Ali’s 24-year dictatorship—and then apologize for his role in it. Imed Trabelsi, said to be the dictator’s favorite nephew, was the first witness presented by Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) at its public hearing on corruption. Broadcast on television and live-streamed on social media, the hearing represented a pivotal moment for Tunisia and for transitional justice. It demonstrated how a truth commission might help a society emerging from authoritarianism understand how a corrupt and ruthless dictatorship could rule for as long it did—and who should be held responsible for its abuses.

In the TDC’s final report, the 206-page chapter on corruption examines how Ben Ali and his family profited from their control over key sectors of the economy, particularly the country’s tourism industry, banking and finance, and extraction of natural resources. The TDC found that Ben Ali “captured” the state’s regulatory power in such areas as customs enforcement (which was what Imed Trabelsi discussed extensively at the public hearing) and the privatization of state enterprises. According to the World Bank—whose own role in enabling corruption during the dictatorship was brought up by activists, and is discussed by some of them in this paper—Ben Ali “used existing regulations and created new ones to benefit family members and those close to the regime…to such an extent that this group of privileged insiders was capturing over 21 percent of all private sector profits in the country.”

How was it possible for the dictatorship to freely engage in such extensive corruption? The explanation lies in what one of this paper’s authors has characterized as “mutually reinforcing impunity.” Authoritarian leaders can commit corruption with impunity because they can commit human rights violations with impunity—and vice versa. The Ben Ali dictatorship murdered critics and activists; instigated the arrest, prolonged detention, torture, and sexual abuse of secular and Islamist opponents; and inflicted less physically violent but just as harsh social, economic, civil, and political rights violations on thou-sands of Tunisians. Yet, institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank praised Ben Ali as a modernizing leader because he implemented their economic prescriptions, and Western governments supported him because he was their ally in counterterrorism.

Building on ICTJ’s involvement since 2012 in transitional justice processes in Tunisia organized by both the state and civil society, ICTJ identified youth-led civil society organizations, social movements, state institutions, and policymakers involved in pursuing accountability for Ben Ali–era corruption whom ICTJ could convene or interview. ICTJ drew up a set of questions for interviews, covering the motivations of young anti-corruption activists, the challenges faced by anti-corruption institutions in dealing with Ben Ali–era corruption, and how the members of these different groups see the relationship between transitional justice and the anti-corruption work they do. ICTJ also selected emblematic corruption-related cases or issues from both the dictatorship and post-dictatorship periods as the context for those discussions, and designed a series of workshops in which participants and resource persons could present, ask about, or explain the strategies they used and the challenges they face.

This paper summarizes those discussions and interviews. It is not meant to be an exhaustive report on the link between responsibility for corruption and transitional justice in Tunisia. Its focus is on the strategies and insights of youth-led Tunisian civil society organizations and social movements that are pursuing accountability for dictatorship-era corruption. It seeks to call attention to the larger revolutionary goals of many of these youth-led movements, and to guide and inform the work of Tunisian and international transitional justice policymakers, advocates, and donors in ways that might support the needs of young Tunisian activists across the country’s ideological spectrum.