Economist – May 18th 2017 | CAIRO
Shouting “no to forgiveness” may sound awfully cruel. But on May 13th thousands of Tunisians marched through Tunis, the capital, waving banners with that slogan. They were protesting an “economic reconciliation” bill that would give amnesty to businessmen and officials accused of graft during the rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the former president. The staggering corruption of his regime was one of the sparks of a revolution that forced Mr Ben Ali from office six years ago and ignited the Arab spring.
The new protesters say they are defending the spirit of the revolution. But Tunisia’s leaders say the bill is needed to spur investment in an ailing economy. It would let businessmen and bribe-trousering officials secretly declare their ill-gotten gains and repay them to the state. It is hoped that businessmen who do not fear arrest would start investing. Officials, meanwhile, are stalling approvals to apply pressure on the government to grant the amnesty.
The government hopes that it will recover billions of dollars under the law. It could certainly use the money to plug a budget deficit of 5.9% of GDP this year. And even after borrowing billions of dollars from the IMF, the state is struggling to pay its employees each month. Youssef Chahed, the prime minister, has proposed sweeping austerity measures, such as firing civil servants, raising taxes and suspending investment in infrastructure.
The thrift has not gone down well with Tunisians, who are already suffering from an unemployment rate of about 15%. In the country’s neglected interior protesters demanding jobs and a share of their region’s oil revenues have blocked roads, halting oil and phosphate production. In response, Beji Caid Essebsi, the president, has deployed soldiers to guard industrial sites, warning that Tunisia’s “democratic path has become threatened”.
Most MPs think that some form of amnesty will help the economy, but—as with much of his agenda—Mr Chahed has not yet mustered the votes to pass the draft law. It remains stuck in parliament, where it has been for two years. To pass it the government needs the backing of Ennahda, the biggest party in parliament and a coalition partner of Mr Chahed’s Nidaa Tounes party. Ennahda wants amendments to ensure that the law does not undermine the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission, which is examining the sins of the old regime. The current bill would “sabotage” that effort, says Human Rights Watch, a pressure group based in New York.
Critics fear that forgiving corruption will encourage more of it. Whereas Mr Ben Ali and his family benefited from the lion’s share of pre-revolutionary graft, the filching has become “democratised”, says Lotfi Zitoun of Ennahda. The old elite from Tunis and the coast still do well out of their government connections. But a new class of crooked businessmen, with ties to current leaders, has emerged since the revolution. In the interior merchants have prospered from smuggling and trading in contraband. They have money to invest but cannot get credit and government permits, which are guarded by the old elite.
The bill does little to address the problems that make corruption so prevalent, says Issandr El Amrani of the International Crisis Group. In a new report, the think-tank recommends several reforms. First, the government should boost funding for the anti-corruption authority. Simplifying administrative procedures would reduce opportunities for backhanders. Influence-peddling could be curtailed by a legal framework for lobbying and transparency over party finances.
But that may not be enough. Members of the old elite are reluctant to give up their advantage. Businessmen from the interior, relegated to the informal economy, see the state as a predatory hindrance. Corruption and regionalism have left the public bitter and distrustful of the state. Fixing all this may require something like a national economic dialogue, similar to the political one that kept Tunisia’s democracy on track in 2013, says Mr Amrani. More reconciliation is needed, not less.