Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has declared a full-scale “war against corruption,” which had become widespread under the regime of ousted former president Zein Al-Abedine Ben Ali. Tunisia “has no choice. It’s either corruption or the state. Either corruption or Tunisia,” Chahed said in a speech last week.
His remarks boosted his popularity after the security services had arrested a number of prominent businessmen and customs officials charged with abuse of power, corruption and smuggling.
Among them was well-known businessman Chafik Jarraya. Last Friday, the Tunisian judiciary issued a warrant for Jarraya’s arrest on charges of “treason, the subversion of national security, and placing himself at the service of a foreign power.” Such charges are punishable by the death penalty under Tunisian law.
On Saturday, state television announced that the country’s military prosecution had initiated an investigation into Jarraya and other persons implicated with him. The authorities also froze his assets for 45 years and confiscated his properties.
Seven other businessmen also had their assets frozen, and three were arrested, one of them a former presidential elections candidate. A customs officer was also arrested. All the men now face charges of corruption, smuggling and undermining national security through inciting and funding anti-government demonstrations.
The arrests took place under the state-of-emergency that has been in force in Tunisia for more than a year-and-a-half. In addition to Jarraya, businessmen Yassine Chennoufi and Nejib Ben Ismail, as well as customs officer Ridha Ayari, were arrested.
“They are implicated in crimes of corruption, smuggling and subverting national security, after having incited and funded the protests [that occurred on Monday before last] in Kamour and Tataouine and previous protests in other areas,” a senior security official said in a statement.
The official said that Nejib Ben Ismail had been apprehended in Bin Qirdan in southern Tunisia as he was attempting to flee to neighbouring Libya. He added that the security forces had raided Jarraya’s residence in the exclusive Buheira neighbourhood of north Tunis on 23 May. He refused to divulge where the arrested individuals were being held.
Angry demonstrations have erupted across Tunisia in recent weeks in protest against economic deterioration, rising unemployment, inflation and the government’s failure to resolve these and other problems. It is feared that the unrest stirred by the currently severe economic straits could jeopardise the relative stability that the government has enjoyed.
A recent rift in the ruling Nidaa Tounis Party, rendering the Islamist-oriented Ennahda Party the largest bloc in parliament, has made the situation shakier for the government.
On 22 May, a demonstrator was killed after being accidentally run over by a police vehicle in front of an oil facility in Kamour during clashes between the security forces and demonstrators protesting against unemployment and demanding jobs in the Tataouine oil and gas fields.
The security forces fired tear gas at the demonstrators attempting to storm the facility. On 10 May, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi tasked the army with protecting the country’s petroleum fields and phosphate mines against protest movements that could disrupt production.
Chennoufi and Ben Ismail were formerly customs officials before becoming business entrepreneurs, according to Tunisian news reports. Chennoufi stood in the 2014 presidential elections that resulted in the victory of the current president. The elections marked the end of a highly polarised and turbulent interim period in which tensions were particularly high between Islamist and secularist political factions.
On 13 May, thousands of demonstrators converged on the streets of the capital Tunis to protest against a controversial bill to promote “economic reconciliation” with officials and allegedly corrupt businessmen connected with the former Ben Ali regime.
The demonstrations marked an escalation in the wave of anti-government protests at a time when the government is coming under heavy pressure, in Tataouine in particular, from popular demands for employment and for a share in the revenues from the country’s natural oil and gas resources.
The “reconciliation bill,” which was under discussion in parliament last month amidst an outcry from some political parties and civil society organisations, was described by the Arabic edition of the Huffington Post as a way of “whitewashing corruption.” The bill was first submitted to parliament in 2015, but discussion has been deferred several times due to popular feeling.
The Tunisian government wants to benefit from the expertise of businessmen once affiliated with the Ben Ali regime in order to boost the chronically ailing economy of a country where economic straits are aggravated by rampant corruption and a proliferating informal economy.
According to local press reports, official agencies are now looking into more than 13,000 corruption cases supported by strong prima facie evidence.
President Essebsi has praised the exceptional international support Tunisia has received in recent years, translated into large financial commitments by international parties. Speaking at the recent Tunisia 2020 Conference, he said that these contributions would enable Tunisia to take great strides towards the implementation of the economic reforms necessary to stimulate the development to which all Tunisians aspired.
Addressing fellow heads of state present at the recent G7 Summit in Sicily, Essebsi said that Tunisia was seeing encouraging signs of economic growth, and he urged support to continue for this through the efforts of member states to assist in Tunisia’s economic recovery.
In response to the Tunisian people’s “and especially the young people’s” legitimate demands for a better life and for the right to employment, Essebsi said that “we need to supply appropriate and rapid answers to people whose patience has worn thin. The sense of disappointment, especially among the youth, is an important factor in instability.”
He said that the greatest challenge the Tunisian people faced today was how to make appropriate use of the country’s human resources, which were the “real wealth and the major engine of renovation”.
“Our responsibility is to equip our youth so that they are at the same level as their counterparts in the industrialised countries,” Essebsi said, calling on world leaders at the G7 Summit to give this segment of the population the priority it needed in cooperation and partnership programmes over the next few years.
He expressed his hope that these young people would receive priority in university cooperation and partnership programmes for study grants and admission to the world’s best research centres.
The Tunisian National Statistics Centre announced on Sunday that the country’s GDP has risen by 1.2 per cent over the past year, leading Minister of Development, Investment and International Cooperation Mohamed Fadhel Abdelkefi to state that the economic growth had made it possible to create 15,000 additional jobs.
Abdelkefi said that the recent economic upswing in Tunisia had engendered a relative decline of about 3.15 per cent in the unemployment rate in the first third of this year.
However, such statistics remain largely unfelt by many ordinary Tunisians, who believe that rampant corruption is limiting the impact of the successes claimed by the government and that whatever impact there has been insufficient to absorb public anger.
2016 economic growth in Tunisia did not exceed one per cent, which according to international reports is not enough to satisfy the employment needs of the country’s 630,000 jobless people.
However, the 2.1 per cent growth rates registered in the first quarter of this year could herald the economic takeoff that the government has promised. Officials have predicted a 3.2 per cent rise in economic growth in 2017 in the light of encouraging signs such as the resumption of phosphates production, a rise in tourism and the revival of a number of export industries.
But in order for these improvements to comfort the government they need to be translated into realities directly felt by the Tunisian people.
Al Ahram Weekly