Corruption in Tunisia
Why look to Panama?

For Tunisia, the Panama Papers' revelations could not have come at a better time: after a long period of inactivity, they could put the wind back in the sails of the country’s lacklustre fight against corruption. Sarah Mersch reports from Tunis

Initially, the site almost crashed due to the surge in public interest, then it was hacked and taken offline for two days. Inkyfada, the Tunisian site publishing information on the Panama Papers, didn't have it easy at the start. And editors at Inkyfada had only published two names. They were however names with clout; Mohsen Marzouk, the 2014 election campaign manager for President Beji Caid Essebsi and now the leader of a new party called "Project Tunisia"; and Samir Abdelli, business lawyer and candidate in the 2014 presidential election.

There are connections with Tunisia in some 8,000 of the Panama Papers, which name more than 20 Tunisians, according to Inkyfada publisher Malek Khadhraoui.

Inkyfada links Samir Abdelli to three offshore companies that he's alleged to have been involved with between 2006 and 2015. Abdelli also represented one of them, Global Petroleum Management, involved in oil business in southern Tunisia, as a lawyer. The former presidential candidate has however strongly rejected the corruption allegations. He simply acted within the law and on behalf of his clients, he claims.

Morally dubious, but not criminal

Mohsen Marzouk, President Essebsi's electoral campaign manager and a man who has since fallen out of favour with the establishment, is alleged to have written an email to Mossack Fonseca in the autumn of 2014 – between the first and second rounds of the presidential election – asking how he might be able to found a company in the British Virgin Islands or the island of Anguilla in the Antilles. Although this may be relevant information from a moral point of view, the politician can hardly face criminal prosecution over the claim.

Although by international comparison, the accusations against the two politicians may appear rather thin, they have however triggered surprisingly heated responses in Tunisia on various levels. Inkyfada, the web magazine that published the reports on the Panama Papers affecting Tunisia, found itself deluged by a wave of hostility from the public and other Tunisian media, which described the story as a "storm in a teacup" and "cheap propaganda".

Inkyfada screenshot with the lead story linking Tunisia to the Panama Papers
According to Inkyfada publisher Malek Khadhraoui, there are connections with Tunisia in some 8,000 of the Panama Papers, which name more than 20 Tunisians

Among other things, critics accused the journalists of questionable working methods and of not supplying any clear evidence for the misconduct of the politicians concerned. The editors at Inkyfada defended their actions. They claimed to have contacted all those concerned before publication, to allow them to comment on the documents. Anything else is a matter for the judiciary, they say.

Legal and political consequences

Mohsen Marzouk turned immediately to the legal system to file a complaint. He denies having written the quoted emails and accuses the website of libel.

But Tunisia is not only the first country where a complaint has been filed against a media outlet for publishing a report. "Tunisia is also the first Arab nation where the political sphere has responded to the revelations," says Mouheb Garoui from the Organisation I Watch, the Tunisian office of Transparency International.

Since the initial publication of the leaked Panama Papers, politicians have been falling over themselves to declare their positions on the matter. An investigation has been launched by the justice and the finance ministry, as well as the Tunisian Central Bank; parliament has set up a commission of inquiry and the National Anti-Corruption Authority has called on Inkyfada to begin co-operation.

"It looks as though the political sphere is finally realising the extent of Tunisia's corruption problem," says Garoui. It is a moment to be seized, he continues, to take serious steps to counter tax evasion, money laundering and the payment of bribes.

Mouheb Garoui from the organisation ″I Watch″ (photo: Sarah Mersch)
Drowning in a sea of bribes and dubious financial transactions: "it looks as though the political sphere is finally realising the extent of Tunisia's corruption problem," says Garoui from the NGO "I Watch"

Corruption thriving – even after 2011

Although, with the flight of ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, the prominent figures of the corrupt economic elite were forced from the pinnacles of power, little has changed in everyday life in Tunisia. The black market for fuel, cigarettes and weapons is thriving, bribes are still paid to accelerate administrative procedures and 54% of companies don’t abide by the law, says a study by the Tunisian trade association. On the Transparency International corruption index, Tunisia is currently listed at 76 (out of 167) – even worse than in 2011. So, Tunisians don’t even have to go as far as Panama, jokes Mouheb Garoui.

Although various public bodies were commissioned to deal with the problem of corruption following the political upheaval, very little has been achieved since this period. The extensive final report of a commission appointed in January 2011 to investigate money laundering and the embezzlement of public funds has been gathering dust since its publication.

"In it, there is for example evidence that on a Saturday after the Revolution, the director of a state bank transferred 900,000 dinar (around 205,000 Euros) to the bank account of a sister of Ben Ali, thereby taking the money out of the system," reports Mouheb Garoui. But the matter never came to trial, instead the person responsible received a promotion. To this day, he continues, there is no political will to take action against corruption and the sleaze in the country's overblown administration. "Today there may be no more Ben Alis and Trabelsis, but other politicians and businesspeople have taken their place," says Garoui.

Former president of Tunisia, Moncef Marzouki (photo: Sarah Mersch/DW)
Tunisia′s former president, Moncef Marzouki, also commented recently on the country′seconomic crisis. There are some ″notoriously corrupt″ people working for the present government who are ″corrupting the country′s morals,″ said Marzouki. No doubt, more could definitely be done to combat corruption in Tunisia

Tackling rampant corruption – now or never

The authority currently working to tackle corruption, which was set up in 2014, says it has insufficient manpower and funds and complains of targeted harassment by the administration. Its new director Chawki Tabib, the former chairman of the Tunisian Bar Association and regarded as a man of integrity, has just received a pledge from the government that the authority's budget will receive a considerable boost. But there is now a backlog of 9,000 cases waiting to be dealt with.

"There are only 11 judges in the chamber of the relevant fiscal court," says Garoui. "A great deal of money was spent on their additional professional training after the Revolution and then, on the orders of the justice ministry, they were gradually transferred to other areas," he continues, shaking his head.

There are however several draft laws under consideration at present. Among other things these are aimed at protecting whistleblowers; the government also plans to present a five-year strategy to combat corruption. "In this respect, the Panama Papers were really published at the right moment as far as Tunisia is concerned. When it comes to passing these important laws, it's now or never. After all, anyone who stands in their way looks immediately suspicious," says Garoui.

Meanwhile, many Tunisians are awaiting revelations concerning other prominent figures possibly featured in the Panama Papers. It is thought these may include a well-known Tunisian media entrepreneur.

Sarah Mersch

© 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

More on this topic