Tunisia: political process is hostage to conflict between business people, says “Crisis Group”

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International “Think Tank” “Crisis Group” has just released a 31-page report on the political and economic situation in Tunisia. Its document is distressing with bitter findings and sometimes even of truths that the Tunisian intelligentsia hides, either out of ignorance, intellectual stupidity or simply for fear of revealing the resurgence of what Tunisia believed to have definitively buried since Bourguiba: regionalism.

A resurgence nevertheless exposed by the recent events in Tataouine. It should also be noted that the report also speaks of economic reconciliation, presented as a necessity and a priori of the success of the political process in Tunisia. It is as if the Tunisian head of state, Beji Caid Essebsi was speaking.

⦁ Polarization, old and new rich and its impact on political process

Referring to the general situation in the country, the report considers that “the political consensus in Tunisia is beginning to reach its limits”. A bitter observation that refers to the image of a large sick company, whose restructuring plan has not succeeded, finds itself overwhelmed by circumstances and which now requires a bailout.

It added, in the same vein, a sense of socio-regional exclusion and weakening state authority is increasing, nurtured by spreading corruption and clientelism.”

Authors of the report note in Tunisia a “polarization [that] is growing in the business community, not just among business leaders but also between them and barons of the parallel economy, especially smuggling.

On one side, an established economic elite from the Sahel (the eastern coastal region) and large urban centres is protected by and benefits from existing regulations, a situation it intends to maintain. On the other, some among a new class of entrepreneurs from marginalized regions, who are partly confined to informal trade, are backing violent protests against central authorities and aspires to carve a place among – if not eventually replace – the established elite.

They add in the same context that “economic and political competition is poisoned by this profound conflict, which aims at capturing key positions that control access to credit and the formal economy,” which contributed to the spread and “democratization” of corruption, and paralyses reform.

It is then necessary to note the accuracy of this observation, just to watch the rise of lobbies, corporatists, professionals, for example, in politics in general and in the corridors of the Parliament in particular.

Long before the Crisis Group, a World Bank report dated October 2014 highlighted the risk of an opposition by business lobbies to any change in Tunisia.

⦁ Crisis Group solutions

The Crisis Group, referring to the NUG (National Unity Government), said “the reforms it advocates are unlikely to be implemented without a political initiative that aims to curtail these economic actors’ hidden influence.

It highlights the need for Youssef Chahed “to improve public financial probity, protect the state from clientelist networks, and begin to tackle the sources of socio-regional exclusion, as this will affect stability in the medium term.”

One of the report’s proposals is for the government to adopt a “new audacious and innovative approach would include influential business personalities, in particular those from marginalized regions whose power in political and social life is hidden but growing.”

But also that the “the government, in cooperation with parliament, should establish a legal framework for lobbying and brokerage activities to reduce influence-peddling at the highest political levels and that it tries to “reduce administrative officials’ discretionary power – which fosters clientelism and corruption and is partly responsible for the fact that entrepreneurs from marginalized regions lack access to credit and markets.”

And still in this perspective of separating politics and business in order to stem its influence on the political process, Crisis Group report, proposes that ” government and parliament should, based on existing law, require political parties to submit their annual financial reports to the Court of Auditors and extend financial disclosure requirements already applied to government ministers and senior civil servants to parliamentarians and presidential staff so as to weaken clientelist networks.

It is necessary to affirm that the successive governments of Tunisia of the Revolution, although they have the legal means to do so, have never dared to take the step, not even by a simple warning, still less the dissolution of countless political parties that so far refuse to publish their financial reports.

⦁ Crisis Group discusses economic reconciliation

According to the authors of the report, to be effective, these reforms should be accompanied by “rigorous and comprehensive national economic dialogue between the presidency, the government, the main political parties, trade unions and associations, and especially the country’s most influential businessmen and businesswomen – whether they supported the pre-2011 regime or have been involved in the parallel economy.”

The report, which already warns that such a dialogue will inevitably meet with resistance, indicates that the aim should be “to render the formal economy more inclusive for newcomers from the interior and redouble political will in the anti-corruption struggle.

It would need to include, on the basis of specific and objective criteria, business people who are creating obstacles to these aims. The aim is “to make the economy more inclusive for

newcomers from within the country and to strengthen political will in the fight against corruption, by including, on the basis of specific and objective criteria, business people who are creating obstacles to these aims.

The “Crisis Group” addressed the currently contentious issue in Tunisia, namely economic reconciliation, as a necessity for the success of the political transition.

It said, in this connection, that “ideally, such a dialogue would yield legal amnesties. It should also encourage the creation of public-private investment funds dedicated to the development of marginalized regions, especially in high added-value sectors, while facilitating the implementation of stricter policies against corruption and smuggling.

It also addressed even the “main political parties and trade unions, as well as local and international civil society organizations that should support such an initiative from which the country has everything to gain.

For the international Think-Tank, “members of the established economic elite and emerging entrepreneurs should both be able to escape the lose-lose logic that pushes them to economically sabotage one another, which could give rise to violent conflict in the future.

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