The people′s faith in their government′s intention to put a stop to corruption and the hidden economy once and for all has been gradually broken down. And worse: critics accuse the government of pursuing policies that actually aim to protect or "legalise" these negative economic phenomena. This criticism is backed up by Tunisia′s low position year on year in the international rankings for combatting corruption, transparency, controlling and governance.
Parliament has also contributed to the mistrust and the gulf between the demonstrators and the political elite. There are a number of factors at play here: for one thing, parliament as a whole has a modest record in this area. For another, it has repeatedly passed laws intended to generate income for the treasury that have hit the poor hardest, while the wealthier sections of the population have been granted numerous economic privileges.
For many Tunisians, this has given parliament the reputation of being corruptible, which has led to further political alienation. To say nothing of the argument that years of neglect by politicians has created a kind of parallel society of dependents and the unemployed. As a result, the gulf between the privileged rich and the marginalised poor has widened and in economically deprived areas, a counter-culture to the political system and the elites has grown up. Criminality has spread, while material and symbolic violence has become a part of people′s identity in the poorest quarters of Tunisia.
Solutions kicked into the long grass
Opponents of the current ruling coalition of Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, along with the majority of demonstrators, are well aware that influential corruption networks from the Ben Ali era have infiltrated the system, meaning that the majority of laws it has passed, decisions it has made and measures it has taken tend to reflect the interests of the wealthy, magnates and businessmen.
It looks as though Tunisia will only avoid the explosive social conflict that is now threatening to erupt through a change of track in economic policy. This change must be based on the new constitution, which advocates "positive discrimination" in favour of the deprived parts of the country and a decentralised leadership. So far, nothing more than lip service has been paid to these principles and they still haven′t been implemented.
There is also a need for a radically different approach to the solution of economic problems: imports bought with foreign currency must be more strictly regulated and more decisive action must be taken against the hidden economy and smuggling. More than half the gross domestic product is now attributed to the parallel economy – which means that no taxes or duties are being paid on 54 percent of Tunisia′s GDP… money that is not going into the state coffers.
Combatting tax evasion might provide the government with resources it could use to save it from rashly and pointlessly seeking salvation in debt, which has already failed as a solution in practice and has only intensified the crisis in recent times.
The implementation of these attempts to resolve the crisis, of course, conflict with the interests of a political elite that is closely linked to nepotism, corruption and political old-boy-networks adept at promoting their own interests. And this is the core of the Tunisian dilemma: the revolution only succeeded in getting rid of the tip of an authoritarian iceberg and establishing a government that is free in name only. Meanwhile, the pillars of the former regime, just like its economic and social networks, have been carried over practically unchanged.
© Qantara.de 2018
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin
Journalist Ismael Dbara is also a Tunisian Centre for Press Freedom committee member.