Since the 2010-2011 revolution that ousted Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the European Union has shown a clear commitment to supporting the consolidation of country’s democratic transition.
The EU has provided Tunisia with approximately €3.5 billion in a combination of grants and loans since 2011. After establishing a “Privileged Partnership” between the EU and Tunisia in 2012, the EU has strengthened relationships with the Tunisian government and civil society across a range of issues, including security, economic, and political reform.
EU officials recognize that it is “in the EU’s strategic interest to have a strong, democratic, and stable Tunisia as its neighbor.” The EU is Tunisia’s main trading partner, responsible for 75 percent of its exports and 63 percent of its overall trade.
That, combined with geographic proximity (Tunisia is only about 150 kilometers from Sicily) and historical legacy, makes the EU Tunisia’s most important international partner. Furthermore, as many EU member states have themselves undergone democratic transitions, they are well-placed to support Tunisia’s process by sharing best practices and lessons learned.
However, the country’s transition is not complete. Despite a growing divide between the Tunisian people and their government, there is one issue on which everyone can agree: the need to fight corruption.
When Tunisians took to the streets in 2010-2011, they were motivated in large part by their anger and frustration at Ben Ali and his wife Leila’s massive corruption. In response, the post-revolutionary government established a series of independent commissions to investigate corruption and recover stolen assets. It incorporated economic crimes into the country’s transitional justice process, enacted several laws aimed at fighting corruption, and created good governance cells within every public institution.
Yet nearly seven years after the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisians perceive higher levels of corruption today than under the kleptocracy of Ben Ali.
As Marwan Muasher and I note in our recent paper, rather than eliminating corruption, the removal of the Ben Ali regime facilitated its decentralization. By dismantling the mafia-like system that oversaw corruption under the former regime, paradoxically, more Tunisians gained access to the tools and the spoils of corruption. Today, the “democratization of corruption” threatens Tunisia’s democratic transition at every level.
Corruption’s most obvious impact is on economic growth. A World Bank study estimated that in the decade before the revolution, Tunisia lost on average an amount equivalent to about 2 percent of its GDP per year due to corruption. Today, the country and its people continue to pay a high price for corruption. The head of Tunisia’s National Anticorruption Authority, Chawki Tabib, recently stated that the state loses on average 2 billion dinars (approximately €800 million) a year due to corruption-related transactions and the poor governance of public procurements. In a corrupt economy, every economic transaction has a corruption tax—an amount of money that is being siphoned away from the state. High levels of corruption also deter much-needed private sector investment, undermining the trust of potential foreign and domestic investors and creating unnecessary risks for firms.
Politically, corruption can have a negative impact on a country’s image abroad. But more importantly, it significantly erodes the trust between citizens and their government.
Corruption also contributes to the decline of public services. In a 2015 study by the Tunisian Association of Public Auditors, 70 percent of Tunisians said they believe that corruption is a means of facilitating daily transactions. This demonstrates how deeply embedded the norm of corruption has become within Tunisian society and how difficult it is to implement effective anticorruption strategies within the bureaucracy.
But most dangerously, corruption provides opportunities for drug and weapons smugglers as well as human traffickers and can assist the spread of terrorism. According to official estimates, the informal economy makes up about half of the Tunisian economy. While many who partake in the informal economy do so to gain access to lawful goods (such as oil and foodstuffs), others take advantage of porous borders and corrupt customs officials to bring drugs, guns, and people across the border between Tunisia and Libya.
Corrupt governments also provide fodder for extremist recruiters and chip away at public trust. While numerous factors can push individuals to join a terrorist group, a corrupt system provides a clear opportunity for terrorists to exploit the anger and frustration that comes along with corruption. Furthermore, funding and training for Tunisia’s border security services—a major priority of the international community—will be undermined by continued corruption at the borders. As one Tunisian security analyst told me, “as long as there are corrupt customs officials working with the smugglers, border fences are useless.”
The EU has several mechanisms through which it can assist Tunisia in the fight against corruption. Support for Tunisia since the revolution has focused primarily on economic recovery and security sector reform—both areas that are crucial in the fight against corruption. The EU-Tunisia Youth Partnership, announced in 2016 by President Beji Caid Essebsi and High Representative Federica Mogherini, can also help get at a key driver of frustration and disengagement: underemployment, especially among young people. Additionally, the EU’s strong relationship with Tunisian civil society, particularly through regular tripartite dialogues with EU and Tunisian officials, can help bridge the divide between civil society and the government on corruption and other issues.
Specifically, there are several steps the EU and member states can take to help Tunisia combat corruption:
- Fund the digitization of government processes. Working with the private sector, donors can help the Tunisian government develop online access to public services. This will help streamline the bureaucracy, empower Tunisians, and remove opportunities for bribery.
- Prioritize the funding of Tunisia’s anticorruption bodies. Both the National Anticorruption Authority (INLUCC) and the Financial Judiciary Pole suffer from a severe lack of human and financial resources. European donors should both diplomatically and financially support these bodies to ensure they are able to carry out their tasks of investigating and prosecuting corruption-related cases.
- Continue to strengthen civil society and ensure Tunisia maintains a free media. Civil society has been incredibly effective as a watchdog of Tunisia’s transition. Donors should work with existing civil society organizations and media outlets to spread their reach into Tunisia’s interior and help with the creation of new, locally-based groups. Funders should also work with Tunisian civil society and the media on a public education campaign around access to existing anticorruption measures, such as the whistleblower protection law and the judicial system.
Such measures could help complete Tunisia’s complex transition.