After the awakening - Tom Blass

Tunisia has been praised for initiating a transition of momentous regional and global significance. But justice in the birthplace of the Arab Spring is more complex than attention-grabbing headlines reveal, and everyone has a role to play.

It is a nondescript building, notwithstanding garlands of razor-wire and the permanent presence of armed guards. When IBA Global Insight asked a bystander to confirm that this was indeed the Tunisian Ministry of Justice, he laughed, ‘only for the powerful!’. And yet on 20 June, it was the turn of a man whose shadow, only six months ago, had loomed over all the ministries, indeed the whole country, to complain that justice had been skewed. After the Tunisian High Court sentenced (in absentia) its ousted former president Ben Ali to 35 years’ imprisonment, the verdict was greeted with jubilation and tears of joy.

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Attempting to draw a line beneath 23 years of despotic rule, judge Touhami Hafi reached his decision after only six hours of deliberation. Summary justice indeed. Inevitably, Ben Ali’s lawyer called it a ‘joke’. But it worried some of those that say that if the due process of law lacks credibility, justice will be both prolonged and undermined.

Nizar Najaf of the Tunisian Ministry of Justice said that there was nothing untoward about such a swift verdict in criminal cases in Tunisia. The judge, he said, was free to act as his conscience dictates. He added that were the defendant in the dock to be cross-examined and to present evidence on his own behalf, the process would have taken very much longer, and that in the event of Ben Ali successfully being extradited, he would have an opportunity to ask that the proceedings be begun again. ‘This is the law in Tunisia,’ he added.

Nonetheless, the rapidity with which the court reached its verdict jars with remarks made by Tunisia’s General Prosecutor Mohamed Sharif (number two in the Ministry) in an interview with IBA Global Insight only a few days before the trial, that justice in the post Ben Ali era would be free from political interference. 

Transitional issues


Tunisia is, in both the literal and also the populist figurative, sense of the term, in a difficult place. There is a war on its doorstep. The government is transitional, and until elections later in the year (already once postponed and at the time of writing scheduled for 30 October), lacks a clear mandate from an increasingly dissatisfied population for whom justice is rapidly coming to be as much about employment and meeting basic needs as it is political freedom and human rights. Security is also a fear, and Tunis at night is subdued, its streets largely empty.

In the midst of rising discontent and hunger for change, the entire legal establishment must also undergo a transition – and one that will not be without pain. ‘We were in a difficult position under Ben Ali,’ one lawyer said. ‘On the one hand we had a vocation as lawyers to uphold justice. But Ben Ali and his entourage also used the judiciary as his ‘right arm’, an instrument with which to achieve his desired ends,’ and, he added, those that refused to be so used paid a price.

Knowing the extent of interference during the ancien régime is difficult. Mohamed Sharif insists it was limited to political cases, ie, those that involved union leaders, student and political activists or critical academics and journalists – but that good quality justice was dispensed in most others. ‘The problem was that there was no category of “political” cases; they were always only treated as common crimes.’


The regime… used people against each other – in a sense, everybody was made to feel that they were guilty, even if the crimes were actually against them. Connections were everything. There was always a deal that had to be done in order to get on in life.

A female Tunisian lawyer


But the effects of cronyism were more pervasive than that. Key to having power was knowledge. One young, female lawyer remembered how ‘the regime was extremely smart. They always had something against you. And they used people against each other – in a sense, everybody was made to feel that they were guilty, even if the crimes were actually against them. Connections were everything. There was always a deal that had to be done in order to get on in life.’

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Legal privilege


While there’s been little blood spilt in the so-called Jasmine Revolution, quietly, scores are being settled through a process called ‘dégagement’, ie, the disengagement of individuals seen as having been dangerously close to the regime by institutions including universities, schools and law firms. Gathered in the offices of the bar association (one room off a corridor of others in the bustling Palais de Justice), a small knot of magistrates was discussing changes since the revolution. One hot topic of discussion was the story of a lawyer, accused of having been a personal representative of ‘the clan’, who has opened up a vendetta with the head of the bar association.

One barrister told me that her brother had been killed in the demonstrations in January and she was awaiting news of a trial date for his killer, a former police officer now in detention. It was a salutary reminder that despite its privileged position, the legal profession and its members are not at a remove from the events that shake the world of the everyday.

In another office, that of the Association of Tunisian Magistrates, the shared concern was the fate of members whose refusal to kowtow to dictats from either the Ministry of Justice or from individuals within the ‘pouvoir’, had earned them internal exile to far flung court rooms in distant towns and provinces, far from their homes and ‘out of harm’s way’. One said, ‘In August we find out whether our applications to return home will be successful. But everything is very uncertain. Nobody knows what will happen.’ It is this sense of uncertainty that pervades everything in Tunisia currently, and is set to do so until a government is elected that has a mandate, and the blessing of the electorate.


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'Revolution lite'


In late June, at a swanky hotel in the Mediterranean resort town of Ghadames, the Tunisian Investment Authority held its first international investment forum since the overthrow of Ben Ali. Tunisia needs investment urgently, both to reassure existing investors that their operations remain secure, and to encourage new investors to give the country a chance. While ministerial limousines and shade-wearing security details waited in the forecourt, a succession of grandees appeared to congratulate themselves and each other on the blossoming of the Arab Spring. ‘The sweet smell of jasmine is now wafting across the whole of North Africa and the Middle East,’ said Tunisia’s interim president, to the applause of international investors, briefly looking up from their BlackBerries.

But it was easy to forget that sole credit for the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime belongs to the country’s people, fed up with depotism, but also with the complacency of powerful institutions and individuals, both in Tunisia and abroad, whose complacency had allowed it to flourish for so long. A bowdlerised revolutionary rhetoric punctuated the event. This was not the place or time for banners or chanting, but glossy brochures extolling ‘a new Tunisia – New Opportunities’, lavish buffet meals over which to discuss contracts, and long-winded speeches extolling Tunisia’s many virtues: a highly-educated workforce; openness to the international community; and a desire to move onwards and upwards as the country finds its feet.

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Unravelling 'Le Labyrinthe'


The vast majority of the foreign investors in the country, with factories and plants in sectors from textiles to aeronautics, had been established years before when the prospect of political change was almost unthinkable and when the price of doing business was‘cooperation’ with the ‘entourage’, the circle close to the President, and in particular his wife’s family. Many are now attempting to undo their involvement with the past by ‘letting go’ of managers and employees whom they say were imposed upon them and who now stand to damage their reputations in the New Tunisia.


It is this sense of uncertainty that pervades everything in Tunisia currently, and is set to do so until a government is elected that has a mandate, and the blessing of the electorate.


In March, a law was passed obliging the government to confiscate assets belonging to the presidential entourage. Newspaper headlines have described the byzantine confusion of its fingers-in-pies as ‘Le Labyrinthe’, extending to 285 companies valued at billions of dinars of assets and employing around 1,500 people. To a large extent, this mostly affects domestic companies, but foreign investors are also caught up in this process of grand-scale ‘dégagement.’

For example, in early 2010 (the spring before the Arab Spring), Orange Telecom announced, to much fanfare, a major joint venture project in Tunisia with a local subsidiary of the Mabrouk group, Investec. Orange had a 49 per cent stake in the resulting entity: Orange Tunisia. A year later, Investec’s assets were confiscated by the government; the company had been owned by the President’s daughter and son-in-law.

Orange’s stake remains unmolested, the government being unlikely to do anything that might dislodge such a strategic and important investor as the French telecoms company, the presence of which not only provides much needed investment but an important global brand with which to attract others. One speaker at the conference urged foreign companies to ‘take the risk now – don’t defer your investments until you see the signs of political stability. The opportunities are now’.

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Uneven progress


It’s certainly true that the challenges are immediate. Unemployment rates among young people are around 30 per cent. Among graduates that figure is 45 per cent. Foreign direct investment in industry dropped 23 per cent in the first quarter of 2011 as against the comparable figure for 2010. And since the ousting of Ben Ali, 41 companies have shut up shop, mostly in response to industrial unrest.

The government, planning minister Abdul Hamid Triki told reporters, had taken emergency measures to create some 40,000 new jobs in all sectors, and in particular to address the economic disparity between the relatively wealthy, developed, coastal and eastern regions of the country, and the languishing southern and western areas.
But among the conference speakers, Mustapha Nabli, the governor of the Central Bank, was the most forthright and realistic. Tunisia’s precarious social economy he said, could quite conceivably get worse. ‘Soon, new graduates will be entering the job market. They will be searching for jobs which do not exist.’ There are, he intimated, huge political pressures on a government that, as yet only exists in nascent form. Nor did he shirk from reminding the international community of its obligations to the country that it has repeatedly praised for initiating a transition of momentous regional significance.

Tunisia has had pledges of cash. At the G8 meeting at Deauville, on 27 May, the G8 members announced a ‘partnership’ under which mulilateral development banks are prepared to raise US$20bn for Egypt and Tunisia by 2013, while the EU and the US say that they are committed to assisting Tunisia in the long term in their own respective capacities. But, said Nabli, it wasn’t going to be enough. The war on Tunisia’s eastern border was ‘not of Tunisia’s doing,’ but is proving expensive: in part because it’s bearing the brunt of a refugee crisis. But there are also important revenues lost as Tunisian migrant workers return empty-handed, with little prospect of domestic employment. Without sufficient compensation, said Nabli, the Arab Spring in Tunisia may yet fail to blossom into summer.

And if the revolution falters in Tunisia, what hope is there elsewhere? Tunisians are educated, secular and international in outlook. The religious and ethnic faultlines that so blight other Middle Eastern and African countries are remarkable by their absence. Despite all the problems besetting it, it is in pole-position to become the model of a democratic state in the Muslim world. But it’s going to need help, if the ordinary Tunisians that own the revolution are to get the justice they deserve. And justice is not the sole responsibility of the Ministry that bears its name.


Tom Blass is a freelance journalist. He can be contacted by e-mail at

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