Transitional Justice in Tunisia: Why Accounting for a Difficult Past Is Never Easy

Claudia Leisinger

Seven years after its revolution, Tunisia is still trying to account for its past. Activists foresee a long battle to demand that transitional justice is carried out, as the process is under attack from the government. To make it worse, traditional elites of Tunisian society are working to protect themselves from any punishment for what took place during the Ben Ali years.

Redha Barakati sits on the edge of a cream-white sofa in his living room. Beside him is his brother Nabil – a framed drawing of him, that is. Nabil, an activist, was tortured to death by police in 1987, the last year of Habib Bourguiba’s rule. His body was dumped in a drain near the police station, with a gun placed to make it look like he had escaped and committed suicide. His face was beaten to a pulp, and was unrecognizable.

Redha Barakati testified in front of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (l’Instance Vérité et Dignité, the IVD) in late 2016.
Redha Barakati testified in front of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission in late 2016. Stian Overdahl

Redha told this sad story before Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (l’Instance Vérité et Dignité, IVD) in late 2016. He was just one of the many victims of more than half a century of single-party rule to give public testimony.

Parliament building, TunisiaThe parliament building of Tunisia.

Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali

Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali served as president of Tunisia from 1987 to 2011. In late December 2010, protests against poverty, unemployment, and political repression erupted in Tunisia, with many of the demonstrators demanding that Ben Ali resign. Dozens of protesters were killed in clashes with security forces. Following a month of protests against his rule in January 2011, he was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia along with his wife Leïla Ben Ali and their three children. In June 2012, a Tunisian court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment for inciting violence and murder, and in April 2013 a military court handed him another life sentence for the violent repression of protests in the city of Sfax.

Part of the transitional justice process that began in the wake of the 2011 revolution in Tunisia, the public testimonies were like an explosion within Tunisian society. With sessions broadcast live on television, the Tunisian public learned about human rights abuses that had  been carried out for decades on civil society activists, opposition politicians, and ordinary citizens.

“Many people who had doubts at some point about what really took place finally understood: yes, it took place, and maybe it was next to your door,” says Salwa El Gantri, head of the Tunisian office of the International Center for Transitional Justice, which monitors the transitional justice process.

The victims of Tunisia’s half-century of authoritarianism included private individuals, but whole regions in the country’s interior were also economically marginalized, in some cases as revenge for uprisings. There were also individuals who derived benefits from the extreme corruption – businessmen who became extremely rich through their close connections with Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi, who ruled over Tunisia from 1987 – the year of Nabil’s death – until they fled to Saudi Arabia in January 2011.

Salwa el Gantri, head of the Tunisian office of the International Center for Transitional Justice
Salwa el Gantri is the head of the Tunisian office of the International Center for Transitional Justice. Stian Overdahl

The transitional justice process – most obviously the truth commission – is meant to address past grievances and recommend reparations. But civil society activists in Tunisia say that, at present, the process is under attack from the government, a ruling coalition dominated by two parties: Nidaa Tounes, which includes politicians from the Ben Ali era, and the Ennahda Party, an Islamist party that has effectively renounced its revolutionary ethos in order to become part of mainstream politics. Tunisia is discovering that accounting for a difficult past is never easy.  

Mural of Chokri Belaid assassinated politician in Tunis.
Mural of Chokri Belaid, an assassinated politician. Stian Overdahl

Tunisia was the starting point of the so-called Arab Spring, which shook the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, and is often described as its only success story, the only country that transitioned to democracy. Its story contains wildly positive elements: Tunisians enjoy free speech and other democratic freedoms. The country traversed a difficult period in 2013 when two key politicians were assassinated and there was a political impasse, which was solved by the quartet of civil society organizations that, in 2015, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But the country has suffered economically, with a drop in foreign investment after the revolution and then a sharp fall in tourist visitors after the 2015 terror attacks, a blow to a crucial part of the country’s economy. Most Tunisians today say they are economically worse off, and many believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Revealing the truth is paving the way to guaranteeing non-repetition.
Salwa El Gantri

Meanwhile, political leaders – including Tunisia’s 90-year-old president Beji Caid Essebsi, who served under both Bourguiba and Ben Ali – believe that the transitional justice process itself is hampering an economic recovery. They say that bureaucrats, fearful of being prosecuted in the future, refuse to grant permits for activities such as opening a new factory, while wealthy businesspeople who profited during the Ben Ali years are investing their wealth overseas rather than at home.

7th Global Table, TunisiaParticipants of the 7th Global Table, Tunisia.

7th BMW Foundation Global Table

“Transitional Justice” was one of the topics of the 7th BMW Foundation Global Table in Tunisia. Participants discussed how dealing with prosecutions, reparations, and institutional reform requires reconciliation between supporters and opponents of the transitional justice process. Compromises on both sides are vital for a holistic approach to fighting cronyism, nepotism, and corruption. The Berlin Global Forum continued this debate and devoted one breakout session to “Promoting Transitional Justice to Restore Trust.”

In October, a law was signed granting amnesty to civil servants who carried out illegal acts during the years of authoritarian rule but did not personally benefit. Leading politicians, including the president, described this as a necessary step to break the paralysis within the public administration.

But critics see the law, and its manner of passing, as anti-democratic, saying it is completely opaque: it may not be possible to learn how many civil servants receive an amnesty, for what reason, or to access the minutes of the committee where the amnesty is decided, says Selim Kharrat, the president of Al Bawsala, a democracy watchdog NGO.

They also see the traditional elites of Tunisian society as working to protect themselves from any punishment for what took place during the Ben Ali years, both directly through their representation within the main party of Nidaa Tounes, and by exerting influence on political parties such as through providing financial support for electioneering. 

Tunisia MPs debate on a new law.
Tunisia's MPs debating on a new law. Stian Overdahl

Nevertheless, the passing of the amnesty law reveals the fragility of Tunisia’s new democracy, specifically the absence of a constitutional court, intended as the judicial counterweight to the legislative and executive branches of government. Tunisia’s new constitution was signed in January 2014, and called for the court to be established within a year. Nearly four years on, the country is still waiting.

The law was originally proposed to apply to a wider group, including businessmen, but was scaled back in the face of fierce protests from opposition MPs, civil society, and activist groups – most notably Manich Msameh (“I do not forgive”), which has held numerous loud and boisterous protests on the capital’s main street.

“We have, on the one hand, a constitution that guarantees some rights and liberties and, on the other hand, in practice, and when dealing with the current framework, some laws that are really not relevant and no longer adapted to the constitution. But in order to reform, we need a court,” says Kharrat. Once a court is in place, a number of civil society organizations plan to challenge the amnesty law; Kharrat believes such an effort would be successful.

I don’t want to compare Tunisia with Egypt or Syria; I would like to compare Tunisia to Sweden, France, and England. This is the biggest mistake that our partners in Europe and North America make.

Selim Kharrat

But the heel-dragging by the government on this and other issues is giving worry to NGOs. Achref Aouadi, president of I Watch, the local chapter of Transparency International, believes the government is planning to pass new legislation that targets international funding of civil society organizations – essentially a crackdown on the most visible and vocal critics of the government.

And from Al Bawsala’s office in downtown Tunis, Kharrat complains that the international narrative frequently portrays Tunisia as a glimmering success story by comparing it with other countries that experienced the Arab Spring but are far worse off. 

“I don’t want to compare Tunisia with Egypt or Syria; I would like to compare Tunisia to Sweden, France, and England. This is the biggest mistake that our partners in Europe and North America make. Why would you want to compare Tunisia to countries that are in civil war and in really difficult political situations? You have to compare Tunisia to your own situation, to your own standards.”

Redha Barakati testified in front of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (l’Instance Vérité et Dignité, the IVD) in late 2016.
Redha Barakati at his home in Tunis. Stian Overdahl

Redha Barakati, who has worked as a journalist and a critic and is now a headmaster, testified before the IVD last November as family and friends looked on, describing in graphic detail the events of his brother Nabil’s death and the aftermath. Redha asked that May 8, the day of Nabil’s death, be designated a national day against torture, and that the police station where he was killed be turned into a museum and office space for civil society organizations working for human rights.

But he is not optimistic about the process. “There is no transitional justice today in Tunisia,” he says emphatically, from his home in Hammam-Lif, south of Tunis.

Nevertheless, the truth commission will soon deliver its final report (it is expected to be released in May next year), and while many believe there is little political will to translate any recommendations into concrete actions, El Gantri says that it will be an important historical document in itself. By compiling and documenting past injustices, it will allow citizens to hold governments accountable in the future. “Revealing the truth is paving the way to guaranteeing non-repetition,” she says.

Kharrat says that while the situation now is dire, the efforts will not end. “This will be a battle that will last a long time in Tunisia, ten or twenty years minimum, because this will depend on the political power and the political scene, and the day when we’ll have a supreme court and another balance of power, things can change.”

Latest Stories
Andreas Heinecke-DSEAndreas Heinecke

Meet the Social Entrepreneur Helping People See Disability Differently

Sustainable Cities

Latin American Cities Are Taking Sustainability to the Streets


By using this website you consent to the use of cookies. Please click here to learn more about the use of cookies on this website. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.