Tunis – Since its introduction in July, a controversial economic reconciliation bill put forward by Tunisia’s President Beji Caid Essebsi has become a flashpoint for economic anxieties and fears that the country is backsliding on its democratic progress.
Supporters of the bill say it is necessary to boost Tunisia’s struggling economy and move the country forward after four long years of transition. But detractors call it an abrogation of the transitional justice process and an amnesty for corrupt officials and businesspeople with ties to the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was deposed after the 2010-2011 uprising in Tunisia.
“This law is an economic necessity [because] Tunisia is going through an economic crisis,” Mongi Harbaoui, a member of parliament from Essebsi’s political party, Nidaa Tounes, told Al Jazeera.
But Samia Abbou, a member of parliament from the opposition Congress for the Republic Party (CRP), disagreed: “Transitional justice would have led to a democratic transition. This could lead to the return of dictatorship.”
Tunisia is the only country to have successfully established democratic institutions in the years following protests in the so-called Arab Spring.
The idea for the economic reconciliation bill is not new. Turning the page on the past and focusing on the future was a major theme in Essebsi’s presidential campaign last fall, and his victory in the first free and fair presidential election in Tunisia’s history raised concerns among human rights defenders about a backsliding on transitional justice.
Since his election, Essebsi, who held high-ranking government positions under both of Tunisia’s post-independence dictators, often spoke of his intention to initiate reconciliation for economic crimes, according to Rim el-Gantri, head of office for the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in Tunisia.
Tunisia adopted a transitional justice law in 2013, and an article in the country’s new constitution, which took effect in January 2014, commits the state to implementing the process.
The law established a Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) tasked with investigating political, social, and economic crimes committed from the time of Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956 through the 2010-2011 revolution. The TDC began receiving cases in December 2014, and the first private hearings were held last June. Preparations are currently under way for public hearings. The TDC has four to five years to complete its work.
According to the process established by the TDC, a file can be submitted for investigation either by a victim, a perpetrator, or the state. The TDC will then investigate the file to determine if there was wrongdoing. In the case of wrongdoing, the file would be submitted to an arbitration committee to mediate a settlement of reparations for the victim and potentially refer the perpetrator for criminal proceedings in a special legal chamber, according to Mohamed Ayadi, head of the reparations committee in the TDC.
The economic reconciliation bill proposed by the presidency, however, calls for “an amnesty … in favour of civil servants, public officials and the like, regarding acts related to financial corruption and embezzlement of public funds, as long as such acts did not seek to achieve personal gain”, according to an English translation of the bill provided to Al Jazeera by the ICTJ.
If a former official or businessperson goes through the process proposed by the economic reconciliation bill, “the TDC can’t touch that person”, Ayadi said. “The law blocks the work of the commission… [It] threatens the whole transitional justice process.”
Many see this as a way to pardon people who spent their lives stealing ... from the country's riches.
Ayadi resigned from the TDC on August 25, after speaking with Al Jazeera, stating that the current climate inside the commission – and in Tunisia generally – is not suitable for transitional justice. The TDC has faced controversy and setbacks since it began its work.
Instead of going through the TDC, the economic reconciliation bill proposes a process by which a former official or businessperson could come forward to an alternative commission consisting of four members appointed by the government and two members of the TDC. The official or businessperson would submit an application for reconciliation containing a statement of facts regarding the sum of money gained through corrupt activities and how it was obtained.
The committee would then investigate the validity of the statement and determine the total value the official or businessperson would need to pay back, including an additional five percent tax on the sum for every year since it was obtained. After repaying the sum, the official or businessperson would be able to return to their position in the government or resume their economic activities.
Decisions of the committee would be based on a simple majority vote, with the head of the committee acting as the deciding vote in the case of a tie. The commission would complete its work within eight months of the law passing, according to the text of the bill.
The idea of the bill is to expedite the transitional justice process for economic crimes and inject much-needed cash into the Tunisian economy, according to Lotfi Dammak, a legal adviser to the presidency. “We simply can’t wait four years to finally reach reconciliation,” he told Al Jazeera. “We can make reconciliations at first [for economic crimes] without interfering with human rights violations because they will remain the responsibility of the TDC.”
“A lot of people who are known to be part of the old regime will now be given amnesty and authority,” political analyst Youssef Cherif told Al Jazeera. “Many see this as a way to pardon people who spent their lives stealing … from the country’s riches.”
There is concern that when former officials and businesspeople resume their activities in the government and national economy, they will continue their old practises. “When you are corrupted, when you are stealing money from your state, when amnestied, [then] you will not think about the public interest,” Gantri said.
Critics also say that the law fails to fully reveal the truth about how economic corruption functioned under the previous regime, nor does it attempt to reform that system, which, in the long run, will actually damage Tunisia’s economy.
“By passing this law we are sending a negative message to international investors that Tunisia’s economy is not ruled by laws of transparency,” Mouheb Ben Garoui, executive director of the Tunisian transparency organisation I-WATCH, told Al Jazeera.
According to Dammak, the criticism is unfounded. “Truth-telling is present, holding people accountable is present, and heading to reconciliation faster is only intended to improve the economic atmosphere and to restore trust,” he said.
Despite the assurances from the presidency, many in Tunisian civil society view this bill as the latest in a series of moves by the government to curtail some of the gains of the Tunisian uprising. The other moves include the adoption of an “anti-terrorism” law, which was criticised by human rights organisations, and the declaration of a state of emergency following an attack on a tourist hotel in the seaside town of Sousse in June.
“This is another setback to the establishment of a democratic state in Tunisia,” Cherif said. “What we are having now is an exploitation of the fight against terror and the economic crisis to decrease the amount of liberty we have gained since 2011.”
The economic reconciliation bill is currently slated for debate in Tunisia’s parliament, where it will have to pass to go into effect. The four parties in Tunisia’s government have a strong majority in the parliament, so it will be difficult to mount an effective opposition to the bill, according to Abbou, the opposition MP.
Garoui is hoping that the bill will undergo significant revisions while it is being debated to end the atmosphere of polarisation its introduction has caused. “If this … law passes, which I think could be the case, it should pass in an atmosphere of consensus,” he said.
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