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Tunisia At a Governing Crossroads

Vivek Ramkumar

More than five years ago, a democratic uprising in Tunisia led to the overthrow of the 23-year dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The revolution that began in Tunisia spread through much of the Arab world and eventually led to regime changes in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and to political concessions by the governments in Jordan and Morocco. Unfortunately, progress has stalled in many of these countries or even been reversed, as is the case in Egypt. Tunisia, however, remains a notable exception to this trend.

Regrettably, Tunisia has been generating negative coverage in the international media of late. A couple of weeks ago, a Tunisian man horrified the world by killing scores of innocent people in an attack in Nice, France. The attack comes a little more than a year after terrorists targeted and killed dozens of foreign tourists holidaying in Tunisia. The Tunisian economy has taken a battering, as tourism is a major source of income for the country, and the attack in France is likely to make foreign tourists even more wary of visiting the country.

This is not a fair or accurate image for a country that has achieved much progress in opening its society during the past five years. Today, a wide range of political views can be heard in Tunisia as evidenced by the creation of dozens of new political parties and thousands of civil society organizations. And the Tunisian parliament has a greater share of women members than any other parliament in the Arab region.

Tunisia is also the only country in North Africa that has enacted a very progressive law giving its citizens the right to access government information, and the government has made rapid improvements in transparency around its national budget. In fact, it has gone from being one of the poorest performers in the world on the Open Budget Index 2012 to being one of the top performers in the Arab world on the Open Budget Index 2015.

Despite these positive strides, continuing corruption in the public sector -- coupled with high unemployment rates and weak economic growth -- are frustrating ordinary citizens, who are not seeing their new political freedoms translate into better standards of living.

Rather than prioritize installing reforms recommended by international and domestic experts, such as building independent oversight institutions and strengthening tax policies and tax administration, the government has instead exacerbated the public's frustrations by proposing controversial measures.

For instance, last year, President Beji Caid Essebsi submitted a draft "economic and financial reconciliation" bill to parliament. The reconciliation bill, touted by the president as an economic confidence-building measure, would provide amnesty to the business community and individuals who served under the deposed dictatorship if they refunded monies they are accused of stealing. Essebsi also presented the law as a way to accelerate the reconciliation process to help Tunisians move on from the trauma of the pre-democratic period.

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Civil society organizations and others have strongly opposed the bill, fearing that if it is enacted into law, its measures would provide cover to the government to make secret deals with individuals who may have stolen vast sums of monies from the country.

Many also argue that this measure would undermine the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission established in 2014 to investigate human rights violations committed in the country during the dictatorship. Among other responsibilities, the commission is mandated to examine economic crimes that have affected individuals and to provide relief and compensation to victims. In sharp contrast to the transparent "truth-telling" mandate of the commission, the government's proposed reconciliation law would allow such matters to be handled behind closed doors. While public uproar prevented the proposed measure from being enacted into law last year, the bill is once again coming up for consideration in parliament.

The push-back against the Tunisian government's efforts to sweep past corruption under the rug reflects the growing belief among Tunisians that openness and transparency are key to the country's advancement. During the past few years, Al Bawsala, a local civil society organization, has begun publicizing -- frequently through live tweets -- debates in the national parliament. For the first time, citizens in this young democracy have an opportunity to follow their elected representatives' discussions of issues of critical national importance, including tracking their attendance in parliament and their voting records.

In 2014, amid much international acclaim, Tunisia joined the Open Government Partnership, which provides an international platform to enable domestic reformers to make high-profile commitments to advance openness and responsiveness in government operations. Unfortunately, Tunisia has made commitments that many local civil society organizations believe lack ambition, do not involve important government ministries, and have been poorly implemented. They believe that the government could do much more to advance openness in public policymaking, such as expanding transparency and public participation in budgeting practices across Tunisian municipalities.

Tunisia is at a crossroads. On the one hand, the country has made much progress in realizing the desire for political freedom that motivated tens of thousands of Tunisians to risk their lives and take to the streets during the uprising in 2011. On the other hand, the gains achieved so far are just a beginning. It is imperative that the government and all stakeholders recognize this moment and undertake further reforms that can truly realize the potential unleashed in this country five years ago.

Vivek Ramkumar is senior director of policy at the International Budget Partnership, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., that collaborates with civil society around the world to analyze and influence public budgets in order to reduce poverty and improve the quality of governance.