Kais Saied, a former constitutional law professor at the University of Tunis, has been president of Tunisia since 2019. In late June 2021, Saied invoked emergency powers under the 2014 Tunisian Constitution to oust Prime Minister Hicham Mechichi, assume control over the government, shutter Parliament, and begin his rule of the country by decree—a move that some have described as a coup. Saied’s recent announcement that he will call a constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections to take place next year bodes well for a potential return to the rule of law, although in October, when he appointed a new government, he curtailed the powers of the Prime Minister—so we shouldn’t get our hopes up just yet.
One of Saied’s stated justifications for his extraordinary consolidation of power was the need to end rampant corruption. He has asserted that Tunisia is a country ruled “by two regimes, an apparent regime, that of the institutions, and a real regime, that of the mafia,” and he has vowed not to “engage in dialogue with ‘thieves.’” Saied defended his extraordinary invocation of emergency powers by highlighting the danger to the country posed by those who “lurk at home and abroad, and from those who see their office as booty or as a means to loot public funds.” This was not a new theme for Saied. Indeed, fighting the corruption of Tunisia’s elites has long been his rallying cry. When he ran for president in 2019 as a political outsider, he ran on an anticorruption platform that proved extraordinarily popular, especially with the younger generation. (Saied garnered an incredible 90% of the vote of young Tunisians in 2019.) And so far, his consolidation of power has also enjoyed widespread popular support—though it has started to wane recently.
Will Saied in fact follow through on his pledge to use his extraordinary powers to root out corruption in Tunisia? It’s hard to know for sure, but some prominent international commentary has defended Saied’s aggressive moves partly on the grounds that he is indeed taking actions that are necessary to counter the systemic corruption of the Tunisian elite. I am more skeptical. There are several factors that suggest Saied’s emphasis on fighting corruption is little more than a disingenuous and self-serving rationalization for an unjustified power grab.
- To be sure, Saied’s seizure of power was followed by what looks like an aggressive crackdown on corruption. Shortly after taking control, Saied put a former Minister of Communications and Technology and at least one former judge under house arrest for corruption. A former agriculture minister and at least seven other officials have also been detained on corruption charges. Saied also dismissed two regional governors and had them arrested them on corruption charges. But several of the more prominent politicians who have been charged with corruption are also Saied’s political opponents. (The former Communications and Technology Minister Anwar Marouf, for example, is a member of the rival Islamist Ennahda party.)
- Skepticism of Saied’s motives only increases when one examines how his government has treated private businesspeople implicated in corruption. Shortly after he seized power, Saied announced impending action against over 400 businessmen for embezzling, in the aggregate, nearly $5 billion from the state. On the surface, that looks like an aggressive move against the corrupt elite. But Saied offered these allegedly corrupt capitalists a rather unusual deal: If they agreed to bankroll development projects in poorer regions of the country, Saied would spare them criminal charges. The lenient treatment of these rich businessmen, especially when compared to politicians and judges, undermines the assertion that Saied is seriously committed to fighting and punishing corruption. Rather, it looks like Saied is taking advantage of an opportunity to enlarge the state’s coffers and enhance his political support.
- The sincerity of Saied’s commitment to fight corruption is also called into question by his assault against the free press and free speech. Free speech and a free press are important tools to ferret out and fight corruption, yet Saied has aggressively undermined these freedoms. The day after Saied seized power, plain-clothes officers stormed Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Tunis and confiscated the news organization’s property, all without warrants. In recent months, attacks against the free press have continued, with Saied’s government shuttering Tunisia’s first public post-revolution Islamist TV channel for airing a poem that seemed to implicitly criticize Saied, and closing down other TV and radio stations also perceived to be critical.
- What Saied isn’t doing also says a lot. Saied has not made any serious efforts to strengthen Tunisia’s anticorruption laws and institutions, like the Financial Judiciary Pole—the body responsible for investigating financial crime but plagued by delays in opening investigations. Nor has Saied attempted to start commissions of his own to investigate and reduce the country’s corruption. (This is in contrast to the provisional government that ruled after the fall of the Ben Ali regime, which established the Commission to Investigate Corruption and Embezzlement the day after Ben Ali fled.) Rather, Saied’s government appears to be undermining the work of Tunisia’s official anticorruption body, the National Anti-Corruption Authority (INLUCC). INLUCC is constitutionally mandated (under Article 130), but has long suffered from a lack of sufficient resources. Instead of Saied using his extraordinary emergency powers to direct more resources toward the INLUCC and aid it in its mandate to fight corruption, Saied’s forces seemingly moved to shut down or at least hamper INLUCC by cordoning off its headquarters in late August and evacuating its employees. INLUCC’s social media site and website appear to not have been updated since then, and the radio program that INLUCC had established to educate Tunisians on anticorruption and good governance efforts hasn’t added anything new to its site since late August.
While these observations of course do not prove that Saied is not making serious efforts to fight corruption, they raise a strong suspicion that Saied is less interested in a genuine anticorruption agenda than in suppressing his political opponents, buoying his popularity, and deterring criticism of his regime. Until Saied demonstrates a firm commitment to the rule of law and the transparent prosecution of corruption, we may be justified in remaining skeptical of Saied’s commitment to eradicating corruption in Tunisia.
This post highlights what is probably the most important question concerning corruption in a political context. In societies where corruption is a major issue, there is a need to do something about it. But in a lot of cases, we find opportunists using the anticorruption slogan as a political weapon to eliminate their opponents instead of carrying out genuine accountability and reform. This is not only bad for the anticorruption cause, but is also seriously detrimental for democracy and can result in a drift into authoritarianism. So the million dollar question is how anticorruption activists should pursue their struggle in a way that leads to a real improvement and does not end up doing more harm than good by contributing to democratic backsliding. We need an inter-disciplinary approach to answer this question. On one hand we need perspectives from political science on democratic backsliding and in case of young democracies, democratic transitions from authoritarianism. And on the other hand, we need the anticorruption perspective.
The tricky part is that the former might at times suggest tempering one’s enthusiasm for accountability drives against political figures because they can be very polarizing and are often used to selectively target opponents. It’s not clear there are any reassuring examples from history of countries that were once corrupt democracies, then some good people pursued aggressive accountability and jailed a bunch of politicians and officials, and then they became much less corrupt and started prospering. But then, many societies have of course made major strides against corruption too; it’s just that there is a lot more to it than a narrow focus on punitive accountability.