This article will discuss the recent wave of arrests of political opposition figures in Tunisia from three perspectives. The first perspective views these arrests as a response to public demands and a defense of the Tunisian people’s rights whereas the second point of view contextualizes them as an attempt to stamp out political dissent, and thus, a clear violation of human rights. Finally, the third lens examines the potential of the campaign to actually combat corruption.
Responding to the Will of the People?
Tunisian President Kais Saied justifies the clampdown on his rivals by maintaining that he is responding to the legitimate demands of Tunisians who want to see those responsible for looting the country and exploiting people’s livelihoods held accountable. During a meeting held on February 10 with the Minister of Justice, Saied said: “The Tunisian people demand accountability, and it is long overdue. It is a sacred duty that this demand is met as soon as possible because it is a legitimate and popular demand.”
In a televised interview he gave on February 14, Saied accused those who had recently been detained on his orders of being responsible for price increases and food shortages, claiming: “We have evidence that these criminals are conspiring against the internal and external security of the state.” He further promised to “purify the country” using the justice system.
The problem here is that instead of relying on the judicial system to investigate and verify accusations before making arrests, which is usually a very long process, Saied took hasty measures that did not have strong judicial foundations, such as what he did regarding the case of Noureddin Bahiri, the leader of Ennahda, who was arrested on December 31, 2021, released on March 7, 2022, and then arrested again on February 13, 2023.
Nevertheless, these types of arrests may be somewhat pleasing to the Tunisian people who are hungry for a strong government capable of combating corruption and ensuring accountability, unlike the previous governments that tried to create a facade of justice. For example, the people still remember the anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by former Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, which lasted for only a few days before it turned into a political propaganda tool that yielded no public benefit. They also remember the so-called “Economic Reconciliation Law” proposed by former President Beji Caid Essebsi, who claimed that the law would turn the page on the past and improve the investment climate in the country. However, that law turned out to be totally void of any economic benefit for the country’s treasury.
These negative past experiences could be the reason why the Tunisian people, accustomed to disappointment and false promises, may welcome the unprecedented measures that Saied is taking to counter corruption, perceiving them as bold and daring.
A Violation of Due Process
On the other hand, leaders of the political opposition, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), and international human rights organizations see these arrests as a crackdown on political rivals and a violation of due process standards. They consider the arrests to be an affront to the principles of democratic transition that require just laws, an independent judiciary system, and government institutions capable of ensuring fair trials and effective conflict resolution processes.
According to political theorists Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, democratic transition requires both attitudinal and institutional changes. Attitudinal changes are realized when both the elites and the masses agree that a democratic system is the most appropriate way to govern the country and that conflicts should be resolved through established constitutional bodies. As for institutional changes, these become realized when both governmental and non-governmental actors stop trying to resolve conflicts outside of said institutions and come together under the rule of law. These two conditions for democratic transition are, unfortunately, still absent in Tunisia.
A Strategic Approach to Combat Corruption
So far, Tunisia’s anti-corruption campaigns have been nothing more than a series of arrests and investigations targeting specific individuals. Since corruption is a complex social phenomenon that cannot be solved by extreme security measures, these campaigns have been doomed to failure.
Comprehensively defined, corruption refers to “a lack of values in individuals that makes them unable to make commitments that serve the public interest.”1 Therefore, in order to create viable anti-corruption policies and procedures, the government must educate the Tunisian people so that they can actively participate in upholding and supporting anti-corruption policies and become an instrumental driver of democratic and socioeconomic change.
In short, arresting political rivals is not the best way to fight corruption and end the social and economic crisis in Tunisia. There must be a comprehensive approach to combat corruption that involves the state, the people, the media, and the legal and judiciary systems. Such an approach should ensure the uprooting of all forms of corruption in the country, rather than focusing only on financial corruption.
Any effective approach should also create an awareness campaign directed at the Tunisian family, where the basic nucleus of society is cultivated; the state media, which plays a tremendous role in propagating social values; and of course, the official.
Majed Karoui is a Ph.D. candidate in political sociology at the Faculty of Arts, Sfax, Tunisia.
1- Israa Alaa El-Din Nouri, The Role of Civil Society Institutions in Combating the Phenomenon of Corruption (A Case Study of Iraq), Tikrit University Journal of Legal Sciences, p. 370.