By Carlotta Gall
TUNIS — The Tunisian prime minister has embarked on a sweeping crackdown against organized crime, arresting nearly a dozen mafia bosses and smuggling barons in recent weeks in an effort to stamp out what has become a nearly existential threat to the young democracy.
The campaign, led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, is proving popular among Tunisians frustrated at increasingly brazen corruption, a stagnating economy and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.
The drive has surprised nearly everyone for its vigor, but it is not without risks, as the mafia bosses have become so powerful that financial and political analysts say they present a threat as dangerous as terrorism.
“It is a war, not a one-off battle,” Mr. Chahed, 41, a soft-spoken agricultural engineer, who worked for several years on development programs at the United States Embassy in Tunis, said in an interview this month. “We are going to continue to the end. It is very important for the Tunisian economy, for the security of the territory.”
The popular uprising in 2010 that overthrew the 23-year dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was fueled by the venality of his family and the relatives of his wife, Leila Trabelsi.
Yet since then the problem of corruption has only worsened. Whereas it used to benefit just a tight circle around the president, it now encompasses a wider circle of thousands.
Over the last several years it has infected large portions of the public sector in what has become known as the “democratization of corruption,” as crime bosses have paid for influence in the media, political parties and the police and judiciary.
Mr. Chahed declared a war on corruption when he took over the government in August, with little evident progress. But now he is casting the problem as a security issue.
“We are persuaded there is a link between smuggling, terrorism financing, cross-border activities and also capital flight,” Mr. Chahed said, promising more arrests ahead.
Already they are piling up. This month, Moncef el Materi, a close associate linked by marriage to the former president and his wife, was arrested in France, apparently at the request of the Tunisian authorities. He had been wanted since 2011.
One of the biggest smuggling barons, Chafik Jarraya, was arrested May 23 and charged with treason and intelligence links to a neighboring country — widely understood to be Libya. He is in military custody and will appear before a military tribunal.
At least nine others have been detained under the country’s state of emergency law. Preliminary charges include smuggling, the illegal registration of real estate and failure to report income, according to news agency reports.
Human Rights Watch, among others, has criticized the government’s use of a military tribunal and state of emergency laws to try civilians, but the prime minister insisted that everything was within the law.
“We are not targeting people but the whole system,” he added. “Our aim is to dissect the systems of trafficking, to break the smuggling networks and to reveal the financing and sites of this phenomenon.”
Corruption has been suffocating Tunisia’s economy, which was already battered by a wave of bloody terrorism attacks in 2015 and 2016. Corruption in public contracting alone is costing the country nearly $1 billion a year, according to Chawki Tabib, the head of the anticorruption agency.
The most serious abuse is within public institutions, and involves hundreds of civil servants and members of the administration, as well as officials in Tunisia’s maritime ports and customs areas. Already, 21 customs officials have been removed from their posts, and 35 others have been referred to a disciplinary tribunal.
Mr. Chahed, who will visit the United States next month to push for more security assistance and investment in Tunisia, has been under growing pressure from international financial institutions to take on the problem. Yet it may have been startling revelations from one of the biggest criminal bosses that left him with little choice but to act.
On May 19, Imed Trabelsi, a wealthy businessman and favored nephew of the former first lady, testified before Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission.
Mr. Trabelsi, 42, is already behind bars, sentenced to 108 years for various charges of embezzlement and fraud for his business activities during the dictatorship, but his videotaped testimony from prison shocked the country.
For the first time, a member of Mr. Ben Ali’s family circle openly described how he had built his business empire by bribing customs officials and using his presidential connections to monopolize import concessions and flout legal and financial regulations.
“If you have someone at the customs, you have no problem,” Mr. Trabelsi said. “I was generous with the customs officials. They knew that I paid four or five times more than the others.”
He fingered some of his partners in crime, and said even high-level bureaucrats had been quick to help, adding that corruption was still going on.
“There has been a revolution, but nothing has changed,” he said. “According to what I hear, the same system is still operational.”
Three days later, the prime minister acted, arresting, among others, several former business associates of Mr. Trabelsi.
“I think they seized this opportunity to do what they had not dared,” said Sihem Bensedrine, the president of the Truth and Dignity Commission, which has a mandate to uncover human rights and financial abuses during nearly 60 years of authoritarian rule. “Maybe this is a first step, it is good that they started.”
Many analysts are warning that the gangrene of corruption is dangerously undermining Tunisia’s young democracy. Yet six years after the revolution, there has seemed to be little political will to combat the scourge.
Immediately after the revolution, the government confiscated property and businesses owned by Mr. Ben Ali and his family. A commission to investigate corruption in and embezzlement by the former government, led by an eminent law professor, Abdelfattah Amar, produced a 300-page report, with documents found in the presidential palace, and referred 459 cases to the courts.
Yet according to Mr. Tabib, the head of the anticorruption agency, only 40 of those cases have been brought to a successful conclusion. Successive governments failed to provide a budget for the commission, bringing work to a standstill. The judiciary, nominally independent, has been accused of delays and corruption.
Mr. Chahed’s government has been promising more action, yet it has been sending mixed signals. It passed a law for access to information, and another to protect whistle-blowers, but also supports a reconciliation law for businessmen under investigation that opponents say would whitewash their crimes.
Mr. Chahed insists that steady work is going on, of which the arrests are just part. Mr. Tabib now has 30 investigators in his anticorruption commission, and money is being put into training 500 more magistrates.
The prime minister is discovering that there is popular support for his drive. In a recent survey by the International Republican Institute, 89 percent of Tunisians described the economy as being in a bad way and 85 percent said they felt that action against corruption was the solution.
“People are telling him if you do it you’ll become a national hero,” said Achraf Aouadi, president of I-Watch, an anticorruption advocacy movement in Tunis. “It’s the jackpot.”Top