Tunisia speeds up reconciliation effort as way out of crisis

Sunday 30/04/2017
Two years later. Members of the Tunisian Parliament attend a committee-level meeting in Tunis, on April 26. (Reuters)

Tunis- Tunisian authorities are looking to speed up con­sideration of a draft law on “economic reconcilia­tion” that would end the threat of prosecution for hundreds of leading businessmen and former top government officials being in­vestigated for alleged corruption or abuse of power violations.
The law is the idea of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who had submitted an initial version of the bill to parliament in July 2015.
The bill’s passage was thwarted because of strong resistance from government opponents, especially on the far left. Islamist party Ennahda labelled the bill a “first step” towards derailing Tunisia’s peaceful democratic transition. Other opponents said it ran counter to the mandate of the Truth and Dignity Commission, launched in 2014 to investigate abuses under the coun­try’s previous regimes.
Two years later, however, even though some still oppose the meas­ure, the government is pointing to the draft law’s advantages in help­ing spark economic growth and in­stilling the country with a forward looking dynamic. Members of the ruling coalition, struggling to address low growth rates, a lack of jobs and a high budget deficit, see the reconciliation process as an economic necessity.
“The main aim of this legislative initiative is to restore confidence between citizens and the admin­istration on the one hand and be­tween the state and investors on the other,” said Chief of Staff of the President of the Republic Slim Azzabi, who noted that amnesty would not be offered to those sus­pected of involvement in corrup­tion.
“We are always open to any pro­posal to improve the bill, particularly with regard to adapting the bill to the democratic transition process and the composition of the reconciliation committee,” Azzabi told Radio Mosaique in Tunis.
At a time when Tunisia’s currency is struggling and economic reform is increasingly urgent, offi­cials are hoping the bill could help recover billions of dollars through negotiating with people who profit­ed illegally from relations with the former regime. Discussions would take place under the auspices of the Independent Reconciliation Com­mittee headed by the National Anti-Corruption Authority. If imple­mented successfully, the financial benefit could be huge.
A study by the Arab Institute of Business Leaders (IACE) in Tunis estimated that delaying reconcilia­tion has cost Tunisia about 1.2% of economic growth annually.
The bill would offer reassurance to civil servants that efforts to im­plement future projects could not subject them to unwarranted pros­ecution. Up to 8,000 civil serv­ants have faced or continue facing charges under penal codes estab­lished by previous regimes.
Tunisian senior officials say the fear of similar prosecution has led the civil service to delay the dis­bursement of development funds, to the point that only 35% of public funds allocated to regions outside the capital and coastal areas had been spent from 2011-15.
A special legal task force is said to be looking into ways to amend vague or potentially unfair provi­sions of the Penal Code, especially articles deemed to inhibit civil ser­vice. Such reforms had been ex­pected since the adoption of a new constitution in 2014.
Tunisia’s economic hardship, caused by a number of factors in­cluding insecurity and social up­heaval, has been exacerbated by the recent decline of its currency.
Hachemi Alaya, head of local economic think-tank TEMA, said the faltering value of the dinar was symptomatic of deeper economic stagnation.

“The problem is not the fall of the dinar parity but the complete ab­sence of economic stimuli,” he said.
Government spokesmen have failed to fully explain the more con­troversial or least understood as­pects of the reconciliation bill.
They point out that while allow­ing for a “general amnesty for gov­ernment employees” prosecuted on suspicion of mismanagement of public funds or corruption, the draft bill does not provide such an option for government employees convicted or suspected of accepting bribes or embezzling public funds. Businessmen accused of income tax or hard-currency violations would have to negotiate a settle­ment before a judicial panel review.
Political leaders involved in the presidency’s drive to rally support for the bill said they expected the bill to pass soon following pledges of support from Tunisia’s main po­litical parties, including Ennahda. Amendments to the bill are likely.
NGOs and political parties out­side the ruling coalition plan are, however, expected to continue campaigning against the bill.