Nawaat: Does the International Crisis Group’s research support the theory that illegal smugglers are supporting the protests in the South? If so, what is the link?

Michael Ayari: We began our work on smuggling networks in 2012, and we released the first report on smuggling and contraband in November 2013. Since then, we’ve been conducting field work in the west and the south, which has shown us that smuggling is sometimes a necessary trade alternative because of a lack of public investment in these regions. However, we don’t just speak of smugglers when we say there’s a link between the people in the south who are powerful at the local level, and social movements. It’s about the local economic elites who are involved in these kinds of parallel networks, not just the people who physically cross the border in the smuggling trade. The real difference between the local economic elites and the established business elites is their access, or lack thereof, to the formal economy. The established business elites entered the economy 30 years or more ago, whereas the local elites don’t have the connections to integrate into the formal economy. These entrepreneurs feel excluded, which makes them feel emotionally, and sometimes monetarily, supportive [of the popular protests in the region]. They use these social movements as leverage to promote their message and gain access to any future negotiations. There are also corporations and employers who are part of the same large family, and located in the same area of the country. These merge into larger “community of interests” in the region, which are comprised of many different types of people. It’s not a pure movement. When we look at it from an academic or social movement perspective, we’re tempted to see it as “pure”, because everyone seems unified under the same motto or slogan. Since the revolution, there’s a narrative in Tunisia that there’s a group of oppressed people who fueled the revolution. So each time there is a social movement, we position it inside the revolution framework. This framework makes it much more difficult to analyze in terms of sociology. If you go there, you see that the movements are made up of very diverse people. They are from different political parties and associations; they’re not all leftists.

Does this diversity also apply to the ICG’s classifications of the established elites in the north and the emerging elites in the south?

Of course. The divide is not a geographical one. In our report, we said that there are two elites who are mainly composed in terms of regional and family origins. For instance, around 70% of the established business elites come from families originally from urban settings dating back to the 19th century. On the other hand, about 70% of the emerging elites consist of families from non-urban settings, many of which are located in the south and west. But at the same time, there are plenty of people in the south who are part of the established elite, and there are also many people originally from the hinterlands who are now living in northern urban settings.
The real distinction is between those who have access to the formal economy and those who prevent others from entering it. Classes are not static; they’re formed by people who are enmeshed in the same struggle. It’s like in physics when you do the experiments with magnets and negatives and positives. When you drop the magnet in, they all scatter to opposite ends. It’s a dynamic notion – this is very important to understand.

The ICG report recommends a “national economic dialogue” between the two elites, but will this leave out Tunisian consumers in the informal economy who aren’t entrepreneurs or part of the emerging business elite?

The dialogue can’t solve all problems because it’s only meant to be a dialogue between entrepreneurs. Businessmen are not the only important players in an economy, but they are important. The question of representation is also important, but you can’t represent everyone. Even trade unions don’t represent people in the informal economic sectors. You also have people from the formal sector who are not always represented, and these people have to join together because they are much more influential in political terms at the local level. This leads to the emergence of local figures with strong connections to businesses. These connections are necessary because it’s very hard for the state to impose measures from the top. It can’t just say “we’re going to open the markets to promote entrepreneurship and undertake reforms so people can access credit, etc.” But it’s important to have a discussion or a dialogue to determine if the people even want that. There are people inside the economy who don’t want it to be opened, and there are other people who want it to be opened so that they can penetrate it. The state could just assume that everyone agrees and impose their policies, but these “communities of interest” could block state initiatives and lobby against these policies, if it turns out that that’s not what they want. So, the [national economic] dialogue could be an important step in facilitating reforms in Tunisia.

If the national dialogue results in the stymying of transborder and “parallel” traffic, how can the Tunisian government create new channels that facilitate the legal importation of goods?

The problem is that 50% of the economy is illegal. Sometimes the bosses themselves participate in the informal sector because it’s such a large part of the economy. And when such a large part of the economy operates in the informal sector, you have to change the laws. You can’t just jail everyone. However, there are varying levels of illegality within this fifty percent. You can’t classify the smuggling of fruits and vegetables in the same category as weapons and drugs. You’re also not going to take the people who traffic weapons and drugs and invite them into the [national economic dialogue]. But these types of imports are not prevalent in Tunisia; it’s not Libya or West Africa. We create these fantasies around the concept of “smuggling”.
As for the dialogue, we don’t know what form it will take. We don’t have a specific recipe to apply to everyone. You also have to give incentives for people to participate in this dialogue, and once there is an incentive you have to punish the people who don’t participate. By doling out carrots it gives you the legitimacy to use the stick as well. The laws also can’t be changed without first establishing a consensus. It’s not enough to impose a law from the top down; the law has to reflect a consensus on the conditions in which the law operates. We also can’t imagine that in six months or one year we’re going to end the informal economy. It needs a new regional political economy. It needs renegotiations and discussions with other regional players such as Libya and Algeria. This would create the possibility of new trade zones and substitution jobs to replace the smuggling industry. But in order for this to happen, the national economic dialogue has to unearth all the issues and opinions of all the players involved.

So, diagnosing the problem is an important stepping stone…

Yes, and we need to acknowledge that Tunisia has an exclusive economy. The economic is inherently difficult to enter easily, even if you respect the rule of law and have the money, time and capacity to succeed. Many people attribute this discrepancy to social and family origin. There are people born into more privileged families and societies that have much greater chances of succeeding. There’s also corruption and clientilism in addition to exclusion. The penal code is tailored to networks that were powerful under the Ben Ali era, and it can jail you for anything. People are de-incentivized from joining the system because the potential repercussions are too harsh. Your penchant to succeed depends on the political will and on your connections to people in power. As a result, people from protection networks to protect themselves against the arbitrary nature of the state. These networks then become their own forms of exclusivity and corruption; they afford opportunities to those within them, but not to those outside. This has been around since 1830, so it’s not new. And in order to change these circumstances, you need to draw an assessment of how society works, which is not a simple task. There is also talk about de-politicizing the economy. This doesn’t mean removing political leverage or ending political economy itself. It means to remove the kinds of parasitic interests that exist. For example, if you’re in a position of power, like a minister, you possess the tools to master the economy. You have the power to dole out gifts and advantages and to give authorizations. The “political consensus” is a farce, because eliminating this type of power would require genuine political competition, and they know that if there is real political competition, it will be too fierce.

How do you think the economic reconciliation law factors into the perpetuation of corruption in government?

In May 2016, we released a report on transitional justice. There are two main camps: the people who want a reconciliation law and the people who say they will never forgive. The problem is that the reconciliation law is only in favor of the established elites. This law presented itself as a contribution to transitional justice, but it’s a mistake because it’s political. All the conciliation commissions in Tunisia are seen as a form of racketeering; taking commissions and bribes in lieu of actual corruption verdicts.

And those records are kept private too, right, they’re not made public?

Yes, and what are they going to make public? We’re not in Sweden; we’re not in Switzerland. It would be good to do that but it’s not realistic. What we propose in our report is the creation of a dialogue before reconciliation happens. Reconciliation is not the means – it’s the end. If you want to reconcile, first you have to ask “with whom?” and “about what?” You need to speak with all the people involved, and only after that can you establish a clear strategy and framework for reconciliation. Corruption also takes on different definitions. Corruption is not merely the use of a public function for private interest. There are people who say that every politician is corrupt. For people of the emerging class, every member of the established elite is corrupt. For them, they’re all former members of the mafia from the ‘70s and ‘80s. And for the established elites, the smugglers and the people originally from the south have absolutely no value and are against the law. Meanwhile, everyone in Tunisia who has been involved in business has involved themselves in something illegal. Only the poor are not corrupt. And even they wish they had those connections.

A lot of the rhetoric in media and academic circles now is that Tunisia is at a breaking point, or on a precipice. Are there any short-term solutions that can benefit people now until this dialogue takes place?

People can lead by moral example. If people can lead by example and create the feeling that there are moral institutions and equality of chances out there, this would provide a positive psychological message that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. These feelings of doubt and uncertainty about the future can traumatize a society. Tunisia entered globalization quickly, and after the revolution there was an identity crisis. Individualism and consumerism have created a newfound focus on money which can break familial relationships and friendships. There’s jealousy between brothers over who has more money. And if one brother has more, the other one views him as corrupt. So people suffer and are poor and they can no longer rely on the traditional solidarity to find help. At the same time, the state and the economy is not wealthy enough to offset these hardships through the redistribution of wealth or handouts. Institutions are also penetrated by the corruption that money spawns. Money is paramount; you buy your way out of jail and you buy the means to have privileges, because the laws grant privileges to people with money. The assessment of these conditions and the diversity of opinions relating to them will create the foundation for new laws and reforms.