Countries at the Crossroads 2007 - Tunisia

  • Author: Stephen J. King
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    25 September 2007

(Scores are based on a scale of 0 to 7, with 0 representing weakest and 7 representing strongest performance.)


Tunisia is a small, semiarid Mediterranean country on the northern coast of Africa. Villages and rain-fed agriculture supplemented by groundwater irrigation dominate the rural landscape. Land distribution is typically skewed toward large landholders, and agricultural production varies enormously with rainfall.

The largely homogeneous population of approximately 10 million is primarily Arab and Sunni Muslim. Like Algeria and Morocco, Tunisia was subjected to French colonial rule. Since independence in 1956, Tunisian politics have featured a hegemonic, authoritarian political party whose name has changed over time. Currently the party is known as the Rassemblement Constitutionelle Democratique (Constitutional Democratic Rally, or RCD). Borrowing key cadres from the party to fill bureaucratic and government posts, Tunisia's first postindependence president, Habib Bourguiba, built a new institutional order that replaced the French colonial system. To consolidate its rule, the single-party state utilized ancillary corporatist organizations to pull various social forces under the state-party umbrella. These included labor, peasant, business, student, and professional associations. Atop the system stood the Tunisian president, who was both head of the ruling party and head of state.

Since independence, Tunisian leaders have achieved substantial progress in modernizing their society and, more recently, bringing it into the global economy. Partly due to their choice of development strategy, current challenges in Tunisia include fostering the private sector and carrying out the privatization of state-owned enterprises. The government must implement these policies while simultaneously providing adequate social safety nets; tackling the critical issue of unemployment, mainly among the young; reforming the civil service; increasing transparency; and decentralizing decision making. In addition, Tunisian leaders have been forced to rethink politics in order to give a voice to a more educated populace and a growing middle class, while dealing with political dissent inspired by a literalist understanding of Islam similar to that in other parts of the Muslim world.

There are a number of signs of success in the economic and social spheres. The country has relatively low rates of poverty, and literacy and education levels that are high for the developing world. Furthermore, social policies stretching back to the early years of independence have been progressive in terms of women's rights.

Unfortunately, political conditions stand in jarring contrast to such achievements. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who replaced the aged Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987, spearheaded a timid democratic opening in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, since then the regime has systematically asserted control over all institutions that could constitute a countervailing power – parliament, the judiciary, the press, political parties, universities, professional associations, and other such entities.1 Ben Ali's legalization of multiple parties and introduction of electoral competition between them in 1989 has settled, for the moment, into a striking example of the institutionalization of the forms of democracy without any of the substance.

With democratic institutions providing little legitimacy in recent years, the regime has sought to secure social compliance with its rule through progress in economic development, success in combating Islamic extremists, and a willingness to utilize the state's coercive and intelligence organizations against any perceived threat. Still, Tunisian society has a number of traits, such as high levels of literacy and urbanization and a large middle class, that typically produce pressure for accountability and public voice and, over time, an unwillingness to accept anything less.2

Accountability and Public Voice – 1.74

Free and fair electoral laws and elections: 1.25
Effective and accountable government: 3.00
Civic engagement and civic monitoring: 1.33
Media independence and freedom of expression: 1.38

Despite having the opportunity to vote in regular, nominally competitive elections for the legislature and the presidency, Tunisian citizens do not have sufficient rights to be able to change their government. The ruling party still has a monopoly on public life in the country. It dominates the cabinet, the legislature, and regional and local government. There is no true opportunity for the effective rotation of power among a range of different political parties representing competing interests and policy options.

Tunisia held presidential and parliamentary elections on October 24, 2004. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali retained the presidency with 94.48 percent of the vote, while his party, the RCD, won 87.7 percent of the votes for the Chamber of Deputies. Tunisian law requires that 20 percent of the seats in the chamber be distributed to the legal opposition parties in proportion to their relative success in the national vote; otherwise, the RCD would have swept the parliament. It was instead awarded 152 seats. Of the 37 seats distributed to opposition parties, 14 went to the Movement of Democratic Socialists (MDS), 11 to the Party of People's Unity (PUP), 7 to the Unionist Democratic Union (UDU), 3 to the Renewal Movement, and 2 to the Social Liberal Party (PSL); the remaining legal party, the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), did not win a seat.3 The ruling party is committed to ensuring that at least 25 percent of its candidates are women. Overall, 43 percent of the 189 deputies elected in 2004 were women.4

Some political variation among the legal opposition parties emerged in the elections, partly in reaction to constitutional amendments in 2002 that allowed the president to seek a fourth term in office, and to a 2003 electoral law amendment that imposed a fine of 5,000 dinars ($4,000) for violation of a new ban on using privately owned or foreign television and radio stations to campaign. Four members of the "loyal opposition" – the MDS, UDU, PSL, and PUP – supported the constitutional amendments and took a favorable view of the 2004 legislative and presidential elections. However, a second camp of legally established parties has grown more critical of the president and the RCD. For example, the left-wing PDP called for a boycott of the presidential election. Its leader, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, claimed that "the poll would reproduce one-man rule monopolizing all power."5 The Renewal Movement, a group of independent figures and small left-wing parties, had launched a democratic initiative, calling on Ben Ali to release political prisoners prior to the elections and fielding its own candidate for the presidency, Mohamed Ali Halouani. However, the PDP and the Renewal Movement performed worse in the 2004 elections than in the 1999 elections.6 The outcome led Suheir Ben Hassan of the Tunisian League of Human Rights to assert that the authorities had rewarded loyal parties and punished insubordinate ones.7 The lone opposition group with substantial public support, the illegal Islamist party Al-Nahda, called for a boycott of the elections.

Majoritarian electoral rules continue to facilitate the RCD's domination of the Chamber of Deputies. While many democracies employ winner-take-all (WTA) rules, WTA legislative elections offer particular advantages to incumbents in countries emerging from single-party rule.8 In Tunisia, WTA elections prevent opposition parties from gradually building up membership in the legislature, since a party can garner a substantial portion of the national vote without winning in a single constituency. In 2006, five opposition parties led by the PDP called on the government to amend the constitution to abolish the de facto one-party system and revise press, political party, and electoral legislation.9

In addition to enforcing electoral rules that favored the ruling party, the government denied equal campaigning opportunities for all parties in the Chamber of Deputies elections. The Tunisian League of Human Rights report on the 2004 elections declared that Article 8 of the constitution, which guarantees protection of the media and freedom of expression, was not being observed by state officials. Journalists received instructions to cover opposition activities only upon the request of the government. Opposition campaign advertisements on radio and television were easily outnumbered by RCD ads, and on state television the opposition ads ran when the fewest viewers would be watching.10 During the campaign, 77 percent of the print media coverage and 92 percent of the electronic media coverage focused on the activities of President Ben Ali and the ruling party.11 Campaign financing in Tunisia is carried out according to Law Number 97-48, promulgated on July 21, 1997, and usually consists of state subsidies or loans.

It is highly unlikely that legislative tallies in 2004 reflected the will of the people. Ayachi Hamammi, a lawyer for the opposition democratic initiative, declared that the elections were rigged through ballot stuffing, complete media blackouts of candidate activities, media misinformation, and censorship.12 The government also influenced election monitoring by vetting domestic and international members of the National Electoral Observatory. The selected international observers came from countries with their own electoral shortcomings, including members of the League of Arab States, the African Union, and the International Organization of la Francophonie.13 Representatives of more credible international organizations were passed over by the National Electoral Observatory.

The RCD won a landslide victory in the 2005 municipal elections, continuing its pattern of employing rural notables and state patronage to deliver the vote of the peasantry, lock them into clientelistic relationships, and alienate them from formal institutions such as the national agricultural union, in which they were central participants during the first decades after independence.14 State privatization and credit policies that have favored rural and urban economic elites in recent years have helped create a new base of support for the authoritarian regime. Partly counterbalancing these trends are programs like 2626, a fund under presidential auspices that is designed to aid poorer areas. For some elite supporters of the regime this amounts to a form of coerced charity, as there is significant state pressure to contribute to the fund.15

The 2004 presidential elections in Tunisia were equally noncompetitive. According to the constitution and electoral code, only the leaders of parties holding seats in parliament are eligible to run for president. The loyal opposition ran three candidates: Mohamed Bouchia, secretary general of the PUP; Mounir Beji, president of the PSL; and Halouani of the Renewal Movement. As noted, Halouani and his party became more critical of the regime over time, and they paid for it at the ballot box.16 The other two candidates ran symbolic races in which they essentially endorsed Ben Ali's reelection. The incumbent won 94.48 percent of the vote, while Halouani, who received 0.95 percent, publicly decried the results.17 There are concerns that the 2002 constitutional amendments eliminating the three-term limit for presidents will allow Ben Ali to attain an overwhelming victory in the 2009 election as well.18 Recent studies of political regimes with both democratic and authoritarian traits have established a benchmark of 75 percent of the vote for victorious incumbent presidential candidates as the key indication that the regime may be considered authoritarian rather than democratic.19

The 2002 constitutional amendment that ended the three-term limit for presidents also created a second parliamentary chamber, the Chamber of Advisors. One third of its members are chosen by an electoral college representing local officials, another third are elected by trade unions and other sociopolitical organizations, and the remaining third are chosen by the president.20 The creation of the second chamber allows the government to mitigate any unfavorable votes in the lower house, a strategy utilized effectively by the regime in Morocco.21 In July 2005 the government conducted elections for the new chamber. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) refused to name candidates for what it viewed as an undemocratic initiative.22

The Tunisian president has nearly absolute powers. Both houses of parliament operate under the control of the ruling party, which he dominates. The president selects the prime minister and cabinet ministers, and appoints the governors of Tunisia's 23 provinces. The executive initiates legislation, and the president rules by decree when the legislature is not in session. The president is commander in chief of the armed forces and enjoys judicial immunity while in office.23

The president's control of the legislative process is reinforced by the judiciary's inability to serve as a balancing power. Despite the existence of constitutional and legal guarantees of judicial independence, the executive dominates the judicial domain. The president appoints members of the Constitutional Council and exercises indirect authority over it through powers of assignment, tenure, and transfer.24 The Tunisian civil service, while qualified and efficient, is also subject to presidential control due to its hierarchical, centralized structure and its strong links to the ruling party.25

Associational life in Tunisia is stifled by various governmental measures. In recent years the government has effectively repressed human rights organizations that had been at the forefront of efforts to increase public accountability. Among other tactics, the authorities used supporters to infiltrate and undermine organizations. Counterterrorism legislation passed on December 10, 2003, has become a tool to restrict the freedom to establish organizations and political parties.26 The law, which aimed to support international efforts against terrorism and money laundering, erodes defendants' rights and contains a broad definition of terrorism that could be used to prosecute peaceful dissent. During a World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) that took place in Tunisia in 2005, opposition figures held a hunger strike to draw attention to political prisoners. The government clamped down on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) during the run-up to the conference, and members of human rights groups in particular faced arrest, imprisonment, and even physical attacks in the street.27 Domestic donors to civic organizations and public policy institutes remain subject to state pressure.

The media is tightly controlled in Tunisia, the internet is monitored, and freedom of political expression is extremely limited even by regional standards.28 According to the Tunisian League of Human Rights, the Association of Women Democrats, and the National Council for Freedom in Tunisia, the public did not have access to fair and balanced media coverage during the 2004 legislative and presidential elections.29 The Tunisian media include a set of private and state-owned newspapers as well as state-sponsored television and radio. Both public and private media outlets produce material favorable to the government in most instances. There are 245 privately owned magazines, but most are owned by figures close to the president. Self-censorship is significant, and repressive measures are taken against any outlets that offer oppositional viewpoints; for example, most online publications, such as Kalimat and Tunizine, are accessible only from abroad. The authorities frequently tell journalists whom to cover and how.

The 2003 counterterrorism legislation further restricted freedom of the media and freedom of expression. Tactics used against the press include publishing delays, newspaper seizures at vending points by the Ministry of the Interior, restriction of mail service, and banning of foreign newspapers when unfavorable articles appear. The latter measure has affected publications including Le Monde, Al-Hayat, and Le Canard Enchaine. Independent websites are banned or censored, and journalists run the risk of being jailed, tortured, fired, or exiled. In May 2004, 160 journalists who had been arbitrarily fired created an association to defend the rights of their profession. The Ministry of the Interior declared their action illegal even though union activities are permitted under Tunisian law.

In May 2005, the authorities abolished the legal depot, a measure that required all media to be vetted by the Ministry of the Interior before publication. This positive step is tempered, however, by the regime's ongoing commitment to controlling information flow at every possible level. Separately, in February 2005, Tunisia's first private satellite television channel was launched, with a second following soon after.

Despite the adoption of the Tunis Commitment and the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society at WSIS to ensure freedom of the press and cultural expression, the Tunisian government continues to ignore the provisions or apply its own interpretations. A play that indirectly criticized the government's treatment of human rights organizations, trade unions, and other civic associations was staged in Tunisia in early 2007, but only after numerous delays and editing to satisfy the Ministry of Culture. The play also criticized radicalism and extremist Islamist groups.


  • Elections should be administered by a neutral authority that is insulated from the ruling party, the RCD.
  • The electoral administration should be sufficiently competent and resourceful to take specific precautions against fraud in the voting and vote counting. This could be achieved, in part, by improving the training for members of the electoral administration.
  • The police, military, and courts should treat competing candidates and parties impartially throughout the electoral process.
  • Participating parties should have equal access to the public media. This could largely be attained by the enforcement of current laws.
  • Voting and vote counting at all locations should be independently monitored, the secrecy of the ballot should be protected, and procedures for organizing and counting the votes should be transparent. International observers should not be handpicked by the regime.

Civil Liberties – 3.11

Protection from state terror, unjustified imprisonment, and torture: 2.43
Gender equity: 4.25
Rights of ethnic, religious, and other distinct groups: 4.00
Freedom of conscience and belief: 2.67
Freedom of association and assembly: 2.20

In Tunisia, the state often violates the civil liberties of its citizens. It is not uncommon for opponents of the regime to be harassed and arbitrarily detained. The government frequently justifies crackdowns on peaceful dissent by citing the threat of terrorism and religious extremism. There are widespread and credible reports of the use of torture to obtain incriminating statements.30

Since the implementation of the 2003 counterterrorism legislation, violations of civil liberties have increased. Abuses in prison are widespread, and appeals to the authorities from family members of the victims usually go unheeded.31 At the end of 2006, a large number of people were seized by the police, kept in custody without specific charges, and denied family contact and medical attention, all of which are illegal under Tunisian criminal law.32 Even after their release, authorities monitored the dissidents, denied them passports and most jobs, and warned them against speaking out about politics and human rights. Citizens can register complaints about torture and abuses of civil liberties at the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights and the Ministry of the Interior. However, these ministries do not respond effectively to such petitions.

In March and November 2006, President Ben Ali pardoned or conditionally released about 1,800 political prisoners. Some were members of Al-Nahda who had been incarcerated after mass trials in 1992, in which they had been accused – dubiously, in many cases – of plotting to topple the government. The number of political prisoners remains above 350. In another positive step toward strengthening civil liberties, the government now permits the International Committee of the Red Cross to inspect prisons.33

Prison conditions in Tunisia fall short of minimum standards. Prisoners suffer long-term solitary confinement, violence, and sexual and physical abuse by guards and fellow inmates, generally sponsored by the guards. Hygiene is extremely poor, and prisoners rarely have access to showers and washing facilities. Cells are overcrowded, with most prisoners forced to share beds or sleep on the floor. Contagious diseases, particularly scabies, are widespread, and prisoners lack adequate medical care. Additional discriminatory and arbitrary measures worsen the conditions of detention. Several political prisoners and prisoners of conscience have been kept in solitary confinement for more than a decade, and prisoners have faced legal obstructions when they have sought redress in the courts. Human rights defenders, including lawyers who call on the authorities to protect prisoners' rights, face intimidation and harassment.34

Tunisia faces a significant terrorist threat, especially along the border with Algeria. The population is under heavy surveillance in these areas. Security forces attacked Islamist militants at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007 south of Tunis, near the Algerian border. The large-scale operation, carried out by police with support from army units, led to the killing of 12 and the arrest of 15 alleged Islamist militants, who were said to be members of the Algeria-based Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC).35

The state in Tunisia has continued to be a regional leader in ensuring that women enjoy the same civil and political rights as men. The government systematically promotes the participation of women in parliament, leading to a ratio of female lawmakers that is high by global standards.36 For the 2004 legislative elections, President Ben Ali ordered that at least one in four of the ruling party's candidates be women, and set the same figure as a goal for women in government service. Although Tunisia is at the forefront among Arab countries in providing opportunities for women, patriarchal cultural norms have some lingering effects. The number of women and girls wearing the hijab, or headscarf, has increased in recent years. The Tunisian authorities have responded by banning the hijab as a form of sectarian dress that acts as a cover for dangerous political extremism. The government does not acknowledge the wearing of the hijab as a religious right, personal choice, or cultural symbol, associating it only with deleterious political motives.37

Tunisia is a largely homogeneous Sunni Arab country. Ninety-eight percent of the population is Muslim. The indigenous Berber population has long been Arabized, as has the small nomadic population of the south. Just as women are not permitted to wear the hijab, men may not wear beards. However, the government generally respects freedom of worship, and other signs of Islamic religiosity are allowed. The small number of Christians, Jews, and Baha'i members benefit from government measures that guarantee their religious freedom. Still, bias in the media, especially against Jews, does occur. The international terrorist group al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for an unusual April 2002 attack on the most famous synagogue in Tunisia, the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, but the bombing has not been followed by similar incidents, likely due to state vigilance. The government attempts to control the appointments of religious leaders, for instance by paying the salary of the grand rabbi of the Jewish community.38

The security apparatus actively constrains what it views as signs of Islamist extremism. Most political prisoners are Islamists, and some have been confined for a decade or more without receiving a fair trial. Religious political parties, including Al-Nahda, are banned. Al-Nahda has claimed support for democracy and nonviolence, and has a genuine popular following, making the ban a serious obstacle to truly representative multiparty elections. The battle between violent Islamist extremists and state security forces has been utilized as a cover to justify repression of peaceful dissidents of various political stripes.

The Tunisian state has taken progressive measures to modify existing laws and practices that constitute discrimination against people with disabilities. The Nobel Prize-winning organization Handicap International has been working in Tunisia since 1992. Services and best practices for disabled people are strong in coastal areas but weaker in the country's interior. Those living in the interior often lack access to basic health centers and rehabilitation units.39

The Tunisian state does not guarantee rights of association and assembly. Sociopolitical organizations are tightly controlled by the government, and public demonstrations, whether peaceful or not, are rarely allowed. Since 2004, the authorities have banned numerous demonstrations called by opposition parties, human rights organizations, unions, and student groups. The police disperse protesters by force when demonstrations do occur.40

In recent years human rights groups and lawyers have been the foremost victims of the state's violation of association and assembly rights. The Tunisian League of Human Rights has faced systematic repression and subversion, including the replacement of its leadership. According to Human Rights Watch, human rights dissidents "are subject to heavy surveillance, arbitrary travel bans, dismissal from work, interruptions in phone service, physical assaults, harassment of relatives, suspicious acts of vandalism and theft, and slander campaigns in the press."41 Similar steps have been taken against the lawyers' syndicate.


  • The government should cease using antiterrorist laws against peaceful dissidents.
  • The state should improve transparency and oversight in the trial and detention system.
  • The new laws, institutions, and actions that limit the associational rights and independence of human rights groups and the lawyers' syndicate should be rescinded.
  • The government should guarantee the right of peaceful Islamists to assemble and participate in politics.

Rule of Law – 2.92

Independent judiciary: 2.20
Primacy of rule of law in civil and criminal matters: 2.67
Accountability of security forces and military to civilian authorities: 1.75
Protection of property rights: 4.00
Equal treatment under the law: 4.00

The Tunisian judiciary is not independent of the executive branch. The president nominates judges and magistrates and heads the Supreme Judicial Council, which oversees judicial matters. Tunisia introduced a Constitutional Council system in 1987 by presidential decree. The council rules on the constitutionality of legislation referred to it by the president, who appoints its members. The president also dominates the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights.

The executive branch has recently increased its interference in judicial matters. In 2005, the authorities removed the elected leadership of the Tunisian Association of Magistrates after it called for more judicial independence, installing a progovernment leadership in its place.42 In May 2006, a new law created a state-run academy for the training of lawyers, giving broad authority to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights to decide who may enter the academy and go on to practice law.43 The legal academy law, along with a strategy of using regime supporters to infiltrate and undermine the lawyers' syndicate, removed one of the few centers of opposition and independence from the Tunisian political scene.

Islamists and political dissidents suffer from discrimination in the administration of justice. Civilians suspected of terrorism are tried in military courts without the right of appeal, and the number of cases of this sort has increased since the implementation of the antiterrorism law in 2003. Aside from the problems created by the new legal training law, lawyers for defendants in political cases face obstacles to effective representation, including denial of access to their clients and relevant government files.44 Prosecutors report to the Ministry of Justice, but the Ministry of the Interior also plays a role and prevents prosecutorial independence.

In theory, every defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty; however, in practice, this is not always the case. Defendants have a right to legal counsel during trial and arraignment, but not during pre-arraignment detention.

Once known for its civilian rule, the Tunisian state has become increasingly dominated by the military and security services since President Ben Ali, a general and former director general of national security at the Ministry of the Interior, came to power in 1987. Today, the RCD's monopoly on power is bolstered by the military, security, intelligence, and national police services. The coercive apparatus of the state actively intimidates dissenters during elections, openly keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings. The security services subject suspected dissidents to heavy surveillance, physical assaults, arbitrary arrests, and glaring violations of their human rights. Military tribunals try cases involving military personnel and civilians accused of crimes affecting national security.45 The state's definitions of "national security" and "crimes" have been quite broad, leading to violations of human rights and complaints by relatives of dissidents and numerous human rights organizations.46 Members of the security forces are not held accountable for the abuses they commit.

The government has made extensive progress in the protection of property rights in the last two decades as it has worked to liberalize the economy. All citizens have the right to own property. However, small-scale farmers tend to lose disputes over land ownership. In the 1990s, Tunisia began the final stages of the privatization of state-owned land that had been reclaimed from the French and turned into agricultural cooperatives. The peasants working on these cooperatives were often descendants of the land's occupants before French colonization, but state privatization policy favored large landowners over these peasants.47 There is also controversy concerning the settlement of property rights and titles for collective land. Political power and corruption played an important role during the privatization of customary land tenure.48 While contracts in Tunisia are enforceable, conflicts have arisen due to the political nature of privatization policies.


  • Urgent steps should be taken to strengthen the power and independence of the judicial branch, especially with respect to politically sensitive cases.
  • Military courts should no longer be used to try civilians, and the scope of "national security" in criminal law should be clearly and narrowly defined.
  • Detained suspects should be promptly charged and processed, or cleared and released. The common practice of detaining suspects for long periods without charges should be abolished.
  • The government needs to institute mechanisms to improve justice and transparency in the distribution of remaining collective land.

Anticorruption and Transparency – 3.08

Environment to protect against corruption:3.20
Existence of laws and ethical standards between private and public sectors: 4.00
Enforcement of anticorruption laws: 2.25
Governmental transparency: 2.86

As in other countries, economic liberalization in Tunisia has reorganized opportunities for corruption and rent-seeking.49 The process, which accelerated in the 1990s, has been guided by patronage networks that intertwine public office and personal interest, particularly at the upper echelons of the state. State-owned assets have been privatized in an uncompetitive manner, and monopolies have been transferred intact to the private sector without an adequate regulatory framework.50 Furthermore, financial disclosures and asset declarations of public officials are not open to public and media scrutiny. These shortcomings point to a genuine need for effective auditing mechanisms and other controls as Tunisia makes the transition to a market economy.

The family of the president's wife and other well-placed families have been implicated in improper business deals. Having started with few if any economic holdings, the Trabelsi clan – brothers and sisters of the president's wife Leila – has been accused of improperly accumulating assets since her marriage to the president, including the only private radio station in the country, Radio Mosaique; the country's most important airline and hotel company, Carthago Airlines; and important stakes in the wholesale, service, and agribusiness sectors. Similar dynamics exist in rural areas, where a rent-seeking elite has taken advantage of the privatization of state land. More productive small- and medium-scale farmers have been denied access to these resources amid the new policy focus on privatization, a market economy, and exports.

Tunisia's score on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index has worsened over the past two years, dropping from 5 to 4.8 on a 10-point scale, with 10 representing the lowest level of perceived corruption. Countries with a score of 5 or below are deemed to have a serious corruption problem.

Indices of economic freedom give Tunisia average grades and show some progress in recent years. The Heritage Foundation's 2007 Index of Economic Freedom ranked Tunisia above the regional average, at 6 out of 17 countries, as well as 1.8 percentage points higher than in 2006. The index did note complex trade regulations and opaque bureaucratic practices that increase opportunities for corruption, but Tunisia received relatively high marks for freedom from government intervention in the economy. It is also comparatively easy to start, operate, and close a business in Tunisia.51

Two public institutions are centrally involved in the enforcement of anticorruption laws. The Cour des Comptes (National Audit Office) is charged with auditing public-sector accounts, while the Disciplinary Financial Court is responsible for punishing violations of financial laws and regulations by public authorities. However, these institutions are likely rendered ineffective by the reality of patronage-based privatization in Tunisia and the involvement of the president's family and high government officials in much of the malfeasance. People who denounce official corruption risk persecution or imprisonment. In this environment, whistleblowers, anticorruption activists, and investigators do not feel secure about reporting cases of bribery and graft.

Historically, corruption has not been pervasive in higher education in Tunisia, but there are growing signs that well-connected officials influence the outcome of exams, appointments, and staff transfers.52 The state continues to make efforts and progress in tax collection, administration, and auditing, in part by gradually enacting legislation that draws on internationally accepted standards.53 The administration and distribution of foreign assistance appears to be devoid of corruption, although the government maintains control of any funding for civil society organizations.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Tunisia has made substantial progress in some aspects of governmental transparency since the state initiated market reforms in the 1980s. Public access to government information has been improved through the posting of more data on the internet. Since 2002 Tunisia has participated in the IMF's Special Data Dissemination Standard in order to implement international best practices with respect to economic and financial statistics. Tunisia has also participated in World Bank and IMF programs on financial policy transparency, fiscal transparency, banking supervision, securities regulation, and insurance supervision.54 This transparency drive has obviously not included the introduction of regulatory structures to prevent privatization that encourages rent-seeking.

The executive branch controls the budgetary process in Tunisia, and it keeps areas that it deems politically sensitive out of public view. The budget is not subject to meaningful legislative scrutiny. The state does not ensure transparency, open bidding, or effective competition in the awarding of government contracts; instead, contracts often go to government cronies.


  • A regulatory framework needs to be established to prevent any remaining state assets from being transferred to private monopolies.
  • Tunisia should continue adopting auditing mechanisms that are consistent with international standards.
  • The government should make public financial disclosures and asset declarations of all high level officials. An independent body should be established to enforce compliance and verify submitted information.
  • Tunisia should strengthen critical institutions such as the central bank, the finance ministry, the legal code, the judicial system, regulatory bodies, and revenue authorities so as to maintain macroeconomic stability, protect property rights, and guarantee contracts.


Stephen J. King is associate professor of government at Georgetown University.


1 Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF), Silence, On Reprime (Paris: RSF, Rapports Moyen-Orient, 199

2 Many have argued that socioeconomic development fosters democracy. For an early formulation see Seymour Martin Lipset, "Some Social Prerequisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy," American Political Science Review 53 (March 1959).

3 Aysha Ramadan, "Foregone Conclusion," Al Ahram Weekly, October 28-November 3, 2004.

4 John P. Entelis, "The Sad State of Political Reform in Tunisia," Arab Reform Bulletin 2, no. 10 (November 2004).

5 "Q&A: Tunisia Votes," BBC News, October 23, 2004.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Marsha Pripstein Posusney, "Multiparty Elections in the Arab World," in Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa: Regimes and Resistance, ed. Posusney and Michele Penner Angrist (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Press, 2005), 98.

9 Michelle Dunn, "Tunisia: Crackdown on Activists," Arab Reform Bulletin 4, no. 3 (April 2006).

10 Tunisian League of Human Rights, Democratic Association of Tunisian Women, and National Council for Tunisian Liberty, Report on the Presidential and Legislative Elections in Tunisia of October 2004.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ramadan, "Foregone Conclusion."

14 Stephen J. King, Liberalization Against Democracy: The Local Politics of Economic Reform in Tunisia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).

15 Stephen J. King, "Failed Democratization in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Syria," Political Science Quarterly (forthcoming).

16 Ramadan, "Foregone Conclusion."

17 Entelis, "The Sad State ..."

18 "Ben Ali's Dictatorship Is Creating More Islamists," Daily Star, January 26, 2007.

19 Larry Diamond, "Elections Without Democracy: Thinking About Hybrid Regimes," Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2 (April 2002).

20 Information obtained from the Tunisian government website,

21 Mohamed Charfi, Reforming Public Management and Development: The Case of Tunisia, (Beirut: International Centre for Prison Studies [ICPS] – Lebanon, 2004).

22 Senate of France, "Senates of the World: Tunisia,"

23 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "Arab Political Systems: Baseline Information and Reforms – Tunisia," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2, 2005,

24 Programme on Governance in the Arab World (POGAR), "Democratic Governance: Judiciary – Tunisia," United Nations Development Programme (UNDP),

25 Commission of the European Communities, Country Report Tunisia, 2004 (Brussels: Commission of the European Communities, May 12, 2004),….

26 Bassam Bounenni, "Tunisia: Closing Off Avenues for Dissent," Arab Reform Bulletin 4, no. 6 (July 2006).

27 "Hunger for Change," Tunezine, October 11, 2005, See also Amnesty International (AI), "Tunisia: Government Repression "Making a Mockery" of World Summit on Information Society," news release, November 16, 2005.

28 Entelis, "The Sad State ..."

29 Tunisian League of Human Rights, Report on the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections ... ; see also RSF, "Tunisia: Annual Report 2005," article=13302.

30 Human Rights Watch (HRW), World Report 2007 (New York: HRW, 2007).

31 "Scandale a Borj Erroumi, l'Abou Ghraib tunisien," Tunisnews, April 28, 2004,

32 AI, "Incommunicado Detention/Fear of Torture," news release, January 18, 2007.

33 HRW, World Report 2007.

34 AI, Report 2006 (New York: AI, 2006)

35 Riccardo Fabiani, "Terrorism Risk Remains in North Africa," World Security Network, February 14, 2007.

36 Entelis, "The Sad State ..."

37 "Hijab Ban Debate Heats Up in Tunisia," Islam Online, October 7, 2006,

38 Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab World, Annual Report 2004 (Cairo: Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, July 2005).

39 Handicap International, "Tunisia," Handicap International,, accessed June 22, 2007.

40 HRW, "Tunisia: Protests Ahead of Global Information Summit," news release, March 16, 2005.

41 HRW, World Report 2007.

42 Ibid.

43 Bounenni, "Tunisia: Closing Off Avenues ..."

44 HRW, "Human Rights Overview: Tunisia," HRW,

45 Carnegie Endowment, "Arab Political Systems ..."

46 HRW, "Human Rights Overview: Tunisia."

47 King, Liberalization.

48 Ibid.

49 Steven Heydemann, ed., Networks of Privilege in the Middle East (New York: Macmillan, 2004), 6.

50 Hector Schamis, Re-Forming the State: The Politics of Privatization in Latin America and Europe (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 4.

51 Heritage Foundation, 2007 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 2007).

52 Neziha Rejiba, "No Respect for the Rules of Democracy: Ben Ali's Young Sharks," Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2006.

53 International Monetary Fund, "IMF Executive Board Concludes 2006 Article IV Consultation with Tunisia," news release, June 8, 2006.

54 POGAR, "Democratic Governance: Financial Transparency – Tunisia," UNDP,

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