Kais Saied’s Wars on Corruption: All Talk, No Action

2021-11-17    |   

Kais Saied’s Wars on Corruption: All Talk, No Action

The phrase “war on corruption” is central to Tunisian President Kais Saied’s political project. According to him, the war is based on two key ideas. Firstly, the adversary to eliminate consists of persons well-known to have exploited the state, its institutions, and its legislation to enrich themselves at the people’s expense. Secondly, the president, with determination derived from his morals and Islamic creed, is the only one who can stop them.[1] Absent from this war are the policies and institutions that Tunisia’s political elite previously developed. In lieu of them, we are asked to trust Saied’s word of honor, along with a “penal reconciliation” bill that he drafted in 2012 and says will be dedicated to so-called businessmen[2] embroiled in corruption during the era of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

On 25 July 2021, in one milestone of this confrontation, the president invoked the “decay” and “corruption” of politicians and the “ever-present danger to Tunisia” posed by Parliament to introduce exceptional measures that place all political power in his own hands. This move once again confirmed the centrality of the war-on-corruption discourse to the president’s project, as well as the importance of asking whether that war is a true plan for governance or merely a populist expression coined by a man who managed to comprehend an existing concern but cannot actually address it. Properly answering this question requires us to distinguish between two periods during which the idea of this war was present. The first is the period when the president’s powers were restricted. The second is the period that followed, when Saied became an autocrat single-handedly ruling Tunisia and therefore able to enforce his ideas.


Saied’s War on Corruption Before July 25: A Promise, a Threat, and a Veto

After Saied’s presidential term began, he spoke on multiple occasions about his legislative initiative addressing pre-14 January 2011 corruption and suggested it as a prototypical development project. He also formulated his way of handling those whom he labels corrupt and believes rule the political landscape beyond his palace.


Penal Reconciliation: The Deferred Promise

On 23 May 2020 – five months after his term began – Saied addressed the delay in the submission of his penal reconciliation initiative to Parliament. He justified the delay on the basis of political preoccupations and confirmed that it would soon be put forward. These statements suggested that the initiative would be the first materialization of his political project, yet no bill was submitted. The promise remained overdue even though it came up on multiple occasions, the most important including Saied’s interview with France 24, the leak of the initiative’s text on social media pages close to him on 23 October 2020,[3] and his reiteration that it would soon be presented on 24 March 2021.[4]


Notably, Saied never sought to develop public debate over his bill and merely leaked its text in an apparent attempt to gauge the political response to it. He did not present the promised legislation to Parliament even though it was drafted in 2012 and he frequently threatened to hold MPs responsible “before the people, God, and history” should they reject it.[5] The above suggests that the president was alone in his idea and hesitant to propose it, unashamed by his repeated violation of promises. These two phenomena – hesitation and a readiness to break promises – are characteristic of his performance as they also appeared in his work on the corruption issue following the revolution.


An Honest Man Does Not Converse with the Corrupt – He Fights Them

Initially, Saied adjusted to the exigencies of administering the state institutions. In late October 2020, he summoned the various party blocs in Parliament to discuss the formation of a government without discriminating among them or presenting his stance on them. However, he then reversed this behavior to declare stances on corruption to be the determining factor in his contact with other political actors. As soon as the government proposed by the Ennahda party (as the winner of the elections) fell and the right to nominate the figure fittest to assume the Prime Minister’s Office and form a government devolved to Saied, he began building a barrier with those he labels corrupt, distinguishing them from others and himself. In the initial stage, he chose Elyes Fakhfakh, and his criterion for this selection was not the parliamentary weight of the parties that had nominated him. Later, after Fakhfakh resigned, Saied declared Hichem Mechichi his candidate, unconcerned that none of the parliamentary blocs – which the Constitution requires him to consult – had nominated this figure. During both stages of selection, clean hands were the justification Saied presented for his unilateral decision-making. At the first stage, he went along with the prevalent discourse separating the components of the political landscape into the “revolutionary line”, known for their faith in the revolution’s values, and the corrupt, i.e. associates of the old regime who had won the elections via fraudulent means. As for the selection criterion at the second stage, it was non-affiliation with the parties labeled corrupt.


During and after these two stages, Saied excelled at capitalizing on politicians’ mistakes to brand them corrupt. He also benefited from the constitutional division of powers, which spares him the responsibility of administering public affairs. In this context, the tactic he adopted during the ministerial shuffle crisis may be the best example of the evolution of his performance in this regard and of his use of the corruption argument to broaden his powers.


The Veto: The Story of Four Ministers

The Tunisian Constitution assigns the president two key functions that overlap the work of the government: foreign relations and national defense. To this end, it requires that the president be consulted about who should hold these two portfolios in any government. Beyond that, the Constitution leaves it up to the prime minister to set the government’s policy and select its members. During his time in power, Saied has tended to expand his involvement and his power to appoint government members. He imposed Mechichi – a top official attached to his palace – as minister of interior in Fakhfakh’s government because he was confident in the former’s loyalty to him. Saied then appointed Mechichi prime minister of the second government and imposed his choices for most of its ministers. The president’s refusal to allow Mechichi any leeway to choose, as well as the latter’s search for political alliances that would guarantee him Parliament’s confidence, caused a sharp rift between them. Hence, the president branded the prime minister as a traitor to his mandate and called on him to return it to the person who had entrusted it to him.


In early 2020, amidst this political conflict, Mechichi decided to conduct a ministerial shuffle with the stated goal of filling the vacancies in the government and improving its performance. His unspoken motive was to achieve representation of the parties supporting the government within it and remove the president’s ministers to reduce his political influence. Saied did not hide his opposition to the shuffle, but he justified his stance not with the risks he knew it posed to him but with a supposed need to prevent the corrupt from assuming government positions. He accused four of the ministerial nominees of corruption and refused to allow the new ministers to deliver the constitutional oath before him.


Previously, overseeing the oath procession had been considered a formality. However, Saied managed to turn it into a veto he may exercise against any appointment not to his satisfaction. This he could only achieve by interpreting the constitutional text via moral and religious values after restating his principled objection to conversing with the corrupt.


Saied’s War on Corruption After July 25: Proceeding Without Evidence

Onlookers interpreted the support of much of the Tunisian public for the 25 July 2021 decisions as a reflection of the corruption that had previously prevailed. This explains the enthusiasm when Saied brought up the penal reconciliation bill to show that he was advancing in the battle – enthusiasm he interpreted as a pledge of allegiance to him. All his subsequent steps would confirm his commitment to the notion that he alone will save the country from all its problems, paving the way for the establishment of his republic.


Another Promise to Implement the Bill to Recover Stolen Wealth… Then More Hesitation

On 28 July 2021, Saied received Samir Majoul, President of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts (the main syndicate representing business owners). On that occasion, Saied spoke about “the need to recover stolen public wealth from the corrupt based on the report of the National Fact-Finding Commission on Bribery and Corruption, which listed 460 embroiled businessmen”. He added that he would “issue a text on a penal reconciliation with [the businessmen], after sorting them from most to least embroiled, to compel each one to carry out non-investment projects in the delegations [i.e. the local administrative divisions] in accordance with citizens’ demands”. At the conclusion of the speech, Saied said that he had submitted this initiative to Parliament, but the MPs have not examined it. He pledged to implement it this time.[6]


Onlookers knew that the report the president cited and purported to display contained no such list, and it is unclear why he thought that it did. His talk of an initiative submitted to and blocked by Parliament was also known to be false. Nevertheless, his seizure of all powers and his haste to speak about the bill he had written in 2012 was taken as an indication that it would soon transition from the realm of promises and threats to implementation. That did not occur. Saied quickly pivoted to say that his bill would only encompass people with cases pending in court and emphasize his respect for Tunisian capital-holders, calling upon them “not to fear seizure or smuggle funds abroad” on August 31.[7] This moderated discourse was followed by silence about a bill that had returned to the shelf, which opened the way for presidential talk of a war on new corruption – talk not devoid of hesitation and confusion.


No Need for Law and Institutions When Saied is Here

Upon seizing power, Saied placed 50 people – all of them top statespeople who had occupied government positions – under house arrest. To do so, he relied on the order regulating states of emergency, which he had previously said infringes rights and freedoms and is unconstitutional. He also subjected all state employees, business owners, and political and sports officials to measures restricting their freedom to travel, completely barring an unknown number. The president maintained that his measures only affected “fugitives and corruption suspects”.[8] Yet reports by rights organizations and recurrent testimonies contradicted this claim and confirmed that the lists were based on nothing but profession. They also showed that most people placed under house arrest had previously disagreed with the president’s choices and orientations.


In this war on corruption, the president made confronting those who “intentionally toy with Tunisians’ sustenance and corner commodities and products to control market supply and raise prices” the goal of his field activity.[9] Between August 11 and 28, he conducted three raids on vegetable storehouses and factories in search of cornerers to expose publically, thereby asserting himself as the sole hero of his battle. When laying out the theoretical foundation of this battle, he had deemed laws to be tools that enable and shelter thieves and are tailored to their interests.[10] In the course of this heroism, he closed down the National Anti-Corruption Authority’s headquarters and evicted its employees without giving any reason.[11] He also refrained from submitting to the judiciary the files that he constantly says are in his possession and prove that politicians and those who purport to fight corruption and defend democracy are corrupt. Likewise, he has refrained from submitting his evidence of facts that he discusses in detail and says prove that MPs were taking bribes for every law they approved.


Ultimately, Saied’s war on corruption was a conflict fought via a discourse of promises and threats, as well as an image of a man who walks alone along a difficult path to fulfill the wishes of his people and – despite the assassination risk he now faces – asks only for his lord’s satisfaction. It was also a war whose battles quickly resulted in an undeclared retreat from their major goals, only to be re-staged later in their original form. It thereby paints, in its details and conception, a picture of Tunisia’s ruler today and his political project. Hence, the talk of alternative thought appears to be mere slogans and good intentions that quickly transform into the imposition of unilateral visions and decisions, and thereby replace the reform effort with stagnation. The fear is that the so-called corrective movement, as well as the war on corruption, will lead to new authoritarianism that abolishes the institutions and places the future of the country and people in the hands of an individual who speaks loudly but acts hesitantly.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


Keywords: Tunisia, Kais Saied, Penal reconciliation, July 25, Corruption, Exceptional measures


[1] The example appeared in Saied’s speech during a meeting with the minister of state property on 22 June 2021.

[2] On multiple occasions, President Saied has referred to business owners he deems corrupt as “rijal ‘amayil”. In the Tunisian dialect, ‘amayil means actions, especially bad actions. The phrase resembles the Arabic term for businessmen (rijal a’mal).

[3] For the version of the initiative published by the media, see “Tafasil Mashru’ Qanun Iqrar al-Sulh li-Istirja’ al-Mal al-‘Amm”, Nessma TV, 23 October 2020.

[4] The president’s meeting with former minister of finance Nizar Yaiche, “Ra’is al-Jumhuriyya: Qariban sa-Uqaddimu Mashru’ Qanun al-Sulh al-Jiza’iyy”, Mosaique FM, 24 March 2021.

[5] While talking about his initiative during his Eid al-Fitr speech on 23 May 2020, Saied said, “A pledge is a pledge. These initiatives will be presented, and at that time let every side fully bear its responsibilities before God, the people, and history”. He added that “the one paramount goal is the right of every citizen to a life wherein his dignity and freedom are preserved” and stressed “the need to return the people’s stolen wealth”. He mentioned that he had prepared a full conception of a bill and presented it years ago and that “the desolate and poor are no less entitled than others to health and education or to human rights in general”. For the speech, see the President’s Office’s Facebook page and “Qays Sa’ayyid: sa-Uqaddimu Mubadara Tashri’iyya wa-li-Yatahammal Kull Taraf Mas’uliyyatahu”, Mosaique FM, 23 May 2020.

[6] “Liqa’ Ra’is al-Jumhuriyya Qays Sa’ayyid ma’a Sayyid Samir Majul”, Watania Replay, 29 July 2021.

[7] “Liqa’ Ra’is al-Jumhuriyya Qays Sa’ayyid ma’a Muhammad al-‘Aqrabiyy, Ra’is al-Jam’iyya al-Mihaniyya al-Tunisiyya li-l-Bunuk wa-l-Mu’assasat al-Maliyya, wa-l-Ladhi Kana Marfuqan bi-‘Adway al-Jam’iyya al-Sayyida Muna Sa’id wa-l-Sayyid Hisham al-Ruba’iyy”, 31 July 2021, the President’s Office’s Facebook page.

[8] Saied’s speech from the Tunis-Carthage International Airport on 16 August 2021.

[9] A speech Saied delivered on the evening of 20 August 2021 while visiting a construction materials company in Fouchana, Ben Arous Governorate, whose owner allegedly practices cornering.

[10] Saied’s interview on 26 July 2021.

[11] Wahid Ferchichi, “Ghalq Maqarray al-Hay’a al-Wataniyya li-Mukafahat al-Fasad: Tahdid Ma’qil Akhar min Ma’aqil al-Dimuqratiyya”, The Legal Agenda, 6 September 2021.

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