Several weeks ago, the Tunisian government announced the passage of a new law which aims to harmonize Tunisia’s anti-terrorism and money laundering legislation within an international legal framework. As Tunisia seeks to further open its economy to outside private sector investors, this law stands to tighten regulations against those seeking to circumvent the system through money laundering—be they terrorists or criminals. According to Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Bechir Tekkari, “The law is essential to keeping abreast of the international standards that Tunisia has willingly adopted to enhance financial transparency and get in step with international standards.”
For decades Tunisia has been striving to create an open economy and it has largely succeeded; it now boasts the most competitive economy in Africa and has established very strong trade relations with Europe. In this respect, Tunisia’s efforts at marketing itself as a bastion of economic liberalization in a globally integrated market have paid off.
Yet, despite the openness Tunisia exudes, it still has a long way to go in other areas. The dearth of freedom of expression and association in Tunisia are profound, and tight controls over opposition parties are commonplace. The impunity that well-connected elites share in economic matters also has ramifications for the rule of law, governance and market competition.
It is in consideration of this entire picture—the good with the bad—that the adoption of “international standards” by any country must be measured.
With inflation and political backtracking competing with trends of economic growth in the Middle East and North Africa, the link between economic and political reform has increasingly come under scrutiny in the region. It was a prevailing theme in the recent roundtable that CIPE held for key partners from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, and Yemen in Hammamet, Tunisia.
Leading private sector organizations from around the region shared successful reform approaches, focusing on entrepreneurship, advocacy, public-private dialogue, and corporate governance. Many of these programs underscore the need for institutions that promote better economic policies and expand growth dividends across a broader segment of society.
It was interesting to see partners not only share their experiences but also discuss broader questions of democracy and economic challenges confronting the region. It was especially striking to be able to openly discuss democratic values and reform in the highly regulated environment of Tunisia, highlighting again how economic growth concerns provide a unique opportunity to engage civil society and the public sector on larger questions of political and institutional change.
In Tunisia recently for a workshop with business journalists on corporate governance issues, I witnessed a generational divide that gives me hope. The key moment in the training came in a debate between an older journalist writing for a state-owned newspaper and younger journalists writing for web-based economic journals about the role of the media in investigative reporting on corporate behavior. The state-owned newspaper journalist challenged why reporters should dig their noses in private businesses if there is nothing wrong. The others protested, saying they must be active in their reporting in order to uncover failures before they become scandals. The split in their views was clear, and I was encouraged by the younger clan who want to shape a new culture that values good governance and the rights of all stakeholders. Now, if only the government would stop blocking YouTube and checking e-mail messages…..
Later in the day, I asked several participants about the most pressing economic issue facing Tunisia today. One answered the rising costs of oil, then explained that the government stabilizes the price of oil so international increases don’t affect them directly. But, he added, there is still a cost since the government has less money for other development projects that would benefit the country. I thought the Tunisians must be very lucky not to feel the food squeeze as much as its neighbors in Egypt or Ethiopia, where bread riots have been on the rise. Tunisia seems to be weathering this storm, but can subsidies for oil continue on an ongoing basis? I asked if rising unemployment and the lack of good jobs was an issue, and they just replied with a shrug. It’s hard to believe that these economic realities aren’t felt, but perhaps it reflects their desire not to air dirty laundry.
Later that night, sitting with our two trainers for this workshop—a Pakistani journalist and a Tunisian professor—one posed the question: “What are you most proud of in your country”? The Tunisian answered women’s rights and a high level education. The Pakistani answered the impact of protests and complaints by the public to affect change in a tangible way. I said the drive for achievement and a spirit of ingenuity and entrepreneurship. I thought the answer from the Tunisian was interesting indeed; the tradeoff between political freedoms and social development seems to satisfy many people here. There are others, however, who long for the air of freedom and say as much in not-so-subtle comments whispered under their breath.