Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed was reported on Sunday as saying no one in the North African country involved in corruption would emerge unscathed in his government’s “war” on graft.
Corruption was widespread in Tunisia under long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in the 2011 uprising that spawned the Arab Spring, but it remains endemic.
Last month a dozen people including businessmen, suspected smugglers and even a former security official were arrested, in a country where nepotism and corruption are seen as a powerful brake on the road to economic recovery.
“I hear some people say this is just a campaign, but it’s not — it is state policy… Corruption in our country is widespread,” Chahed said in an interview published on Sunday in the newspapers La Presse and Assabah.
“We aim to tear down the systems of corruption. The struggle against corruption will be a long-term war, a sustained policy,” he said.
“For all the arrests, preliminary enquiries took months. I presided over them and we worked with total discretion, in absolute secrecy,” Chahed said in the interview.
On Wednesday, the daily Al-Chourouk deplored what it called “the absence of a plan of communication” about the arrests and the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights said it was “surprised” at official “vagueness” on the issue.
Saying in Sunday’s interview that he had acted “in harmony” with President Beji Caid Essebsi, the premier vowed that “no one will be protected in this war against corruption”.
Those being held are “big fish” and there will be further arrests, he said.
“The amount of money confiscated over the past eight months was 700 million dinars ($288 million, 255 million euros),” Chahed said.
STATE OF EMERGENCY
He dismissed accusations that the crackdown was a countermeasure to the rise of regional social protest movements.
Some of those detained are accused of “incitement and alleged financing of the protest movement” in the south.
“It is a system that can be seen everywhere… Even social protests are exploited by this system (of corruption), and terrorists also benefit from it,” he said.
The anti-corruption arrests, made possible by a state of emergency in force since November 2015, have been largely welcomed.
But some say such measures do not go far enough, and that more is needed than the arrest of a few prominent figures.
Chahed rejected criticism of the use of the state of emergency to make the arrests.
“In exceptional circumstances, exceptional measures,” he said, adding: “Other actions are planned in this framework… People will have to get used to them”, as they have “in the fight against terrorism”.
Since the 2011 revolution, Tunisia has experienced an increase in jihadist attacks that have killed dozens of members of the security forces and 59 foreign tourists.
Analyst Hamza Meddeb of the European University Institute near Florence, speaking before Sunday’s interview, said that by making the arrests Chahed’s government may well have wanted to ease the pressure caused by the social unrest.
But he finds himself in a delicate position.
“If he goes further, he risks touching extremely well-established interests and political elites,” Meddeb said, adding that he cannot back down “without it appearing that he has let himself be used”.