Tunisia’s Communitarian Companies: Justice or Domination?

2022-06-02    |   

Tunisia’s Communitarian Companies: Justice or Domination?
Illustration by Othman selmi

Issued on 20 March 2022, the Communitarian Companies [sharikat ahliyya] Decree emerged in the context of political authorities seeking immediate answers to structural socioeconomic predicaments (such as poverty, unemployment, regional disparity, and agricultural production). While laying the groundwork for this project, President Kais Saied repeatedly paraded petitions by citizens denouncing the ways that state agricultural lands are used and argued that the solution is to create a “new category of companies”. He stated that the project aims to ensure that “property returns to the people and is not leased out cheaply”, revise the ways that state lands are used, and entrust these lands to locals.

Unexpectedly, the decree omitted the issue of state lands. Article 5 merely makes general reference to an ability to manage collective lands, albeit “subject to the legislation in force”. Moreover, the decree places itself within the philosophy of social and solidarity economy (SSE) without explicitly stating so. The president deemed it a step toward codifying SSE experiments such as Jemna Oasis.

Despite the emphasis on the idea’s innovative nature, the Communitarian Companies Decree was not born in a vacuum. The new text both overlaps and denies previous laws and experiences. It was also influenced by the authority’s calculations and conceptions for society and politics. This article will deconstruct the decree’s legal, political, and social dimensions, and the aims that the exceptional measures authority seeks to achieve through it.


Building the New by Ignoring the Existent

On 30 June 2020, less than two weeks after Parliament passed the SSE Law nearly unanimously, President Saied stamped the law. He did not use his constitutional powers to challenge or block the law. Nor did he express any negative stance on it. Less than two years later, he issued the Communitarian Companies Decree without making any reference to the SSE Law. Although the idea of communitarian companies draws heavily on SSE principles, the decree totally ignores all previous legislation. The decree’s preamble cites only the Constitution (part of Saied’s frantic effort to convince himself and others that he has not subverted it) and Presidential Order no. 117 of 2021 on Exceptional Measures. The exceptional measures authority opted not to amend the SSE Law, add a new chapter to it, or even stipulate that the communitarian companies enjoy the “SSE enterprise” label, which would allow them to access significant funding privileges. Rather, a decision was clearly made to totally ignore the SSE Law and even the concept itself in the decree. Meanwhile, the government has pledged, in its urgent economic stimulation program, to issue the SSE Law’s applicatory texts.

This disregard reflects the disconnect between the discourses of the head of the authority and his government. It also reflects the preoccupation with “new approaches” that governs the president’s thinking – which involves breaking with all products of the democratic transition system – and his vilification of the 2019 parliament and its “tailored” legislations that “proliferated thieves”. However, there is yet another reason, namely the essential contradiction between the philosophies of the Communitarian Companies Decree and the SSE Law.

This contradiction is evident when we compare Article 6 of the decree, which contains the principles underpinning communitarian companies, and Article 4 of the SSE Law. While the former draws on many principles, such as the precedence of the person over capital, limited profit, a vote for every member when decisions are made, and indivisible collective ownership, it omits the central SSE principle of managerial autonomy from public authorities. This was no mere oversight: the decree’s other articles show that subordinating communitarian companies to the executive authority was a conscious choice.

Direct subordination to the executive branch was a key impediment to the cooperative experiment [of the 1960s] and prevented it from becoming a strong third economic sector on par with comparable experiments. The SSE Law’s philosophy sought to build on the existing fabric of cooperatives, mutual societies, and other institutions, which are also subject to their own laws, and draw it toward SSE principles. This it did by making the SSE label, which grants privileges in exchange for compliance with the principles, accessible to various legal forms of institutions.

The SSE lLaw’s focus on autonomy was also evident in the multiplicity of mechanisms for funding SSE, which involve not only the state but also private finance institutions and mutual banks. These mechanisms free SSE enterprises from financial dependence on the state or private sector. As for the question of communitarian companies’ funding, the decree provides no answer. Rather, a partial answer can be found in the Penal Reconciliation Decree [issued the same day], which allocates 20% of its revenue to the local authorities for the purpose of “contributing to the capital of local or regional enterprises in the form of communitarian, investment, or commercial enterprises”. Hence, Saied backslid on the choice – which appeared in a leaked draft of both decrees – to directly link penal reconciliation revenue to communitarian companies via a parent company under the president’s supervision that would invest in and supervise them. Consequently, communitarian companies will have fewer funding opportunities and will therefore gradually become more financially dependent on the authority, pending whatever constitutional and legislative changes Saied may have in store for the local authorities.

While the SSE lLaw’s choices are debatable, they were at least based on in-depth studies and a years-long participative process and therefore were in harmony with the law’s objectives. Conversely, Saied, in his decree, opted to ignore not only existing legislation but also the existing institutional fabric in favor of a new legal form – communitarian companies – subordinate to the authority in terms of funding and oversight. Although the choices made in the decree changed following the leaked version, subordination to the authority remained consistent, with only the mechanisms and forms changing. Thus, in the name of “new approaches”, Saied is restoring the authoritarian spirit of the cooperative experiment – a spirit that the 2020 law tried to dissolve via a modern and democratic approach to SSE.


Communitarian Companies Under the Authority’s Oversight

Analyzing the decree requires determining the position of the ruling authority and its apparatuses in relation to the communitarian companies project. The text grants the authority a domineering role that includes oversight and intervention in decision making. The supervisory authority may call ordinary and extraordinary general sessions, and it has the power to preside over the sessions it calls.

The text again stipulates the authority’s intervention in the management of communitarian companies in Chapter 6, “Support and Supervision”. This supervision is divided between the local, regional, and central authorities. The role of the governors (the supervisory authority for local companies) and the minister of economics (the supervisory authority for regional companies) is remarkably prominent. This role goes beyond receiving notices and reports to even include intervening in the companies’ management by delivering “observations and reservations” and proposing “necessary measures”. The companies must implement the proposed measures under pain of penalties that include losing the public service and property placed at their disposal.

The authority’s role of oversight and direction also appears in the flexible concept that the decree terms “the supervisory authority”. Under Article 70, the supervisory authority can dissolve boards and appoint temporary managerial committees after calling an extraordinary general session. Under Paragraph 2 of the same article, if the authority determines that “the measures taken to rectify the aforementioned breaches were ineffectual” then it may ask the territorially competent court to dissolve the communitarian company.

The spirit of the decree not only undermines the principle of autonomy as a cornerstone of SSE but also highlights the new relationship between state and society that the authority wants to establish. Using the state’s capacities at the central, regional, and local levels, the authority will seek to create a state of compliance whereby communitarian companies become an economic fabric subordinate to the unilateral policy of the center (President Saied) rather than a tool for producing local developmental paradigms with socioeconomic outlooks that aim to reduce poverty and unemployment and create a productive economy. The communitarian companies project also shows a desire to penetrate local society and bind it to the authority by creating a new economic norm connected to the ruler through a relationship based on subordination, loyalty, and constant fear of dissolution, liquidation, and the penalties mentioned remarkably frequently in the decree.


“Communitarian” as a Means of Destroying Political Assembly

The Communitarian Companies Decree reflects not only an authoritarian aspiration to dominate local society but also a complete vision for assembly and politics. Article 9 indicates that the communitarian companies project will tolerate no form of political action, affiliation, or discussion under pain of criminal prosecution. The article states, “Communitarian companies shall not practice any political activity or engage in or fund political processes”. Article 96 goes even further by criminalizing these actions: “Anyone who violates Article 9 of this decree shall be punished with one year of imprisonment and a fine of TND10,000 [USD3,230]”.

While the SSE Law regulated SSE institutions’ relationship with political action relatively clearly by stipulating the principle of managerial autonomy from public authorities and political parties, the Communitarian Companies Decree uses loose and general phrasing in this regard. Terms such as “political activity” and “engaging in political processes” expand the scope for interpretation and abolish all forms of political expression. Statements, proposals, posts on social media, conversations, discussions, and differences of opinion and vision can all constitute “engagement in political processes” criminalized by the decree. By adopting ambiguous phrasing, the political authority appears to be trying to create a state of forced political uniformity that exclusively expresses the voice and orientations of the authority.

Political action, in all its forms and manifestations, is the only safeguard that limits the political authority’s domination over society and arms society with tools for exercising oversight over the authority, critiquing it, and opposing its decisions. Article 9 of the decree helps to strip society of all mechanisms for monitoring, critiquing, and protesting the authority’s choices, particularly its economic choices, which so far seem to clash with popular expectations because they spur further liberalization and bind the local economy to international donor institutions’ terms. Meanwhile, the aforementioned broad oversight and punitive powers that the decree grants the political authority create an asymmetrical situation consisting of an authority that monitors and silences a subservient society.

The “communitarian” concept is also based on a political approach that seeks to destroy political and civil ties prevailing within society and replace them with communitarian ties (ties based on geographical proximity and kinship). This approach sees communitarian ties as pure social relationships that are unmarred by party politics and political engagement and more sincerely express the “conscience of the people”. In the president’s vision, returning to the “communitarian” and “local” does not mean closeness to local communities, understanding their needs and peculiarities, and linking them to national community on the basis of citizenship and free political participation. Rather, it means reshaping group identity, which is a goal shared by many populist movements that adopt discourses promoting purity-based utopias (e.g. purity of race, purity of the people, and purity of nationalism). In the Tunisian context, Saied’s populist discourse aims to propagate the utopian idea of the “local base” [al-qa’ida al-mahalliyya] and make it a central political project for the future via so-called “bottom-up construction” [al-bina’ al-qa’idiyy].


An Economic Translation of Bottom-Up Construction

What could an economic project like communitarian companies have in common with a project to establish an alternative political system? The answer is not just that they, along with penal reconciliation, are the only “projects” in the president’s toolbox. While running for election, Saied repeatedly said that he does not need projects and that “returning power to the people” through bottom-up construction suffices as solutions will emerge spontaneously from the people at the grassroots level and then be compiled regionally and nationally. Penal reconciliation and communitarian companies are not so much independent projects as they are expressions of the same slogan, namely “returning to the people” what was “stolen from it”, including not only “political decision-making” but also its stolen capacities and wealth and the tools of economic action. The three projects are governed by the same contradiction between the emancipatory slogan and their authoritarian substance as they are all based on subordination to the executive authority. The political system, even if its implementation is limited to the three pillars for which the online consultations set the stage (voting for individuals [rather than lists], the power to recall MPs, and a presidential system), will create an imbalance between authorities in favor of the executive branch. As for the penal reconciliation, its ratification and the distribution of its revenue are controlled by the executive branch, as are the communitarian companies.

However, the convergence between the three projects is also evident in their territorial focus. The factor that distinguishes communitarian companies from SSE enterprises and provides their “communitarian” character is their direct connection to the territorial division, primarily the delegations but also the governorates in the case of “regional communitarian companies”. This connection is evident from the goal that Article 3 of the decree sets for the communitarian companies, namely “achieving regional development, primarily in the delegations, in accordance with the collective will of the inhabitants”. To tighten this connection, the decree establishes stringent conditions for establishing and participating in communitarian companies. It requires that a local communitarian company be formed by at least 50 natural persons “with the capacity to vote in municipal elections”, i.e. residents of the delegation. Joining communitarian companies after their establishment also requires residence in the delegation (or the governorate, in the case of regional companies) in which they operate. However, the decree goes even further by prohibiting the founders from rejecting anyone who meets the conditions. Hence, belonging to the same delegation takes precedence over participants’ right to choose one another. In other words, communitarian logic, embodied in the delegation, trumps the economic or even social logic that causes people to converge on a particular activity.

The post-independence state’s territorial organization was based on the political logic of reducing tribal ties while facilitating domination by the center. This was done by combining the role of security, intelligence, and surveillance with the clientelist role of providing social aid [and vesting it in the delegations, which are subordinate to the Ministry of Interior]. The dependence of Saied’s “projects” on this territorial organization reveals their internal contradictions, which include not only the search for communitarian purity in a territorial division originally established to erode it but also the restoration of pre-revolution authoritarian logic and tools disguised in revolutionary and emancipatory slogans.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


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