Tunisia – A Snapshot of its Journey against Corruption
Before the 2011 Tunisian Revolution, corruption was endemic in the country. In fact, people’s anger with widespread corruption was one of the factors that fuelled the revolution.
Since then, Tunisia has seen a change in government, with a path towards democratisation and significant efforts put into constitutional processes, legal frameworks and laws. Creation of the national anti-corruption agency, INLUCC (Instance Nationale de Lutte Contre la Corruption) in 2011 and joining the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (AUCPCC) in 2019 are important highlights in the country’s journey to reform. The effect of these combined efforts is also evident in Tunisia’s steadily improving score on the Corruption Perceptions Index since 2015.
The good thing is that, after the revolution in 2011, Tunisia started adopting anti-corruption laws and we now have a good arsenal of anti-corruption instruments that fall within the same objectives and clauses of the AU convention.
However, recent events have challenged this progress. In July 2021, President Kais Saied dismissed the Tunisian prime minister, suspended the parliament and assumed executive authority. Key agencies such as INLUCC were also shut down in August 2021, leaving the country without a government agency to receive reports of corruption cases and to protect whistleblowers.
In October 2021, a new cabinet and prime minister were appointed by presidential decree, but the country suffered further democratic setbacks when the president dissolved the main judicial watchdog in February 2022 and the Tunisian parliament the following month. Though initially welcomed by many Tunisians, these actions are now increasingly being seen as a troubling power grab by President Saied, leaving him with near-total power over the country.
The Africa Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption
The AUCPCC is a shared roadmap for member states to implement good governance and anti-corruption policies and systems. In 2018, under the TEA-CAC project, Transparency International’s Tunisian Chapter, I Watch, conducted research into the existing Tunisian legal framework against the provisions of the AUCPCC. Their research focused especially on measures against money laundering (Article 6), illicit enrichment (Article 8), political party funding (Article 10), and civil society and media (Article 12). Based on this study, I Watch has undertaken several advocacy efforts to strengthen the implementation of the convention in Tunisia.
Changing the vocabulary
Alongside the creation of new anti-corruption institutions and laws after the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, there was an equally important need to change people’s perception of corruption. It was so embedded into their everyday life that Tunisians considered it acceptable.
Here, I Watch’s strong roots in activism and connection to people proved to be useful. From the beginning, it became a key part of their advocacy strategy to share anti-corruption messaging around the convention directly with people in the streets and through social media platforms.
I Watch also uses traditional media channels to great effect, sharing and framing information on lawsuits and campaigns and high-profile events, all of which add pressure on public officials to act. When the new cabinet was formed in October 2021, but INLUCC remained closed, I Watch put out a statement to call on all new members of the government to declare their assets online in accordance with the 2018 law on declaration of assets and interests.
The campaign worked tremendously well – the very next day, the prime minister and all newly appointed ministers filed their declarations.
To broaden and sustain the reach of information about corruption, I Watch trains journalists and journalism students on the AUCPCC and its articles of focus, the anti-corruption legal framework in Tunisia and the rights to access information.
Before the revolution, people never discussed corruption, the word just wasn’t in our vocabulary. Now, public perception is changing. People are learning about such concepts like illicit enrichment, declaration of assets and interests, and whistleblower protection through real-life examples shared by the media. When the public is better informed, they feel encouraged to report cases of corruption, and public officials are discouraged from engaging in corrupt behaviour.
Creating a democracy from the ground up
Along with training the media, I Watch has also worked closely with regional and national organisations to build a knowledgeable and strong civil society. They are helping the organisations build close links with anti-corruption institutions through workshops and online events. With growing awareness of anti-corruption measures and tools, not least on the right for access to information, Tunisia’s civil society is becoming increasingly empowered to demand transparency from their government.
Civil society in Tunisia is fundamental to the democratic transition in all its phases, perhaps most importantly its oversight and awareness raising roles that help put an end to state corruption by building a society that criminalises corruption instead of encouraging it. As a CSO partner of I Watch, we have benefited from training and events on anti-corruption mechanisms to expose practices related to money laundering and illegal funding of electoral campaigns. I WATCH has developed a large network of CSOs throughout Tunisia, promoting a culture of anti-corruption at the national level.
I Watch does more than just call out government and high-profile individuals when things move in the wrong direction; it proactively contributes to institution building and supports the agencies responsible for Tunisia’s prolific introduction of anti-corruption laws. Under TEA-CAC, I Watch has trained public officials at the local level on key reforms to be enacted under the AUCPCC commitments and has featured INLUCC representatives and members of parliament at online live sessions viewed by tens of thousands of people.
A good friend tells the truth
I Watch publicly supported the president when he started taking on the judiciary powers but were also among the first to publicly object when he took the extreme measures that led to him effectively ruling by presidential decree following the July 2021 suspension of parliament. This dual function of I Watch as a watchdog and capacity builder in the country has been vital in creating debate and moving along legislation on key anti-corruption issues, ranging from political party funding to criminalisation of offences, such as bribery in the public sector, and the massive strides made in ensuring politicians’ declaration of assets and interests.