President Kais Saïed receives Prime Minister Najla Bouden. Carthage, 28 December 2021.

« President Kais Saïed stated that fiscal policy must have a solid base in justice, but in fact his choice consecrates a fiscal policy that is unjust », asserts Amine Bouzaiene, president of Al Bawsala’s project Marsad Budget. Bouzaiene shared his remarks regarding the country’s tax scheme shortly after the press conference held on December 28 during which Finance Minister Boughdiri Nemsia presented the 2022 finance law.

Leaders of Al Bawsala and the Tunisian Economic and Social Rights Forum (FTDES) are partners in the campaign « Yezi Ma Rhantouna » (You’ve put us in enough debt) against the country’s continued reliance on debt as a lever for development. Those behind the campaign have never been under the illusion that Bouden’s government has either the will or the capacity to radically change the status quo when it comes to fiscal justice.

As indicated by Minister Boughdiri’s presentation « Stabilizing public finances to reboot the economy », the 2022 finance law constitutes the government’s attempt to resolve, at least in part, its own budgetary issues, and to continue to dole out aid to businesses. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of measures in the new finance law are dedicated to these two economic actors.

Ostensibly, the 2022 finance law does not fail to lend a hand to disadvantaged segments of the population. As in preceding versions, the new law includes several provisions designed to prevent the complete degradation of economically vulnerable groups, and yet does nothing to pull them out of poverty. The number of such measures can be counted on one hand (see box below).

A few sparse measures for Tunisia’s poorest families

Out of the five measures relating to poor households, only three are laid out in quantifiable detail. First of all, the law revises a monthly stipend for low-income families, raising its value from 180 dinars to 200 dinars, and increasing the number of beneficiary families from 190,000 to 310,000.

Low- and middle-income families (a total of 120,000 families) are to receive a monthly stipend of 30 dinars for each child under 6 years of age. Finally, 36,000 low- and middle-income families will continue to receive 500 dinars in « integration » aid for students who pass the baccalaureate exam.

The two other provisions constitute what are, in reality, simple promises to « maintain aid and transfers provided at the beginning of each academic (school and university) year », to « accelerate the subsidized housing program » and above all to « not disrupt salaries and subsidies ».

What remains certain, however, is that Tunisia will not see an overhaul of its tax system in 2022, nor any time soon thereafter. Two examples demonstrate this reality and prove that, once again, the State’s taxation system penalizes the most vulnerable while sparing—and even protecting—the most powerful.

In this vein, operators of the country’s parallel market, most of whom belong to the most disenfranchised population groups, are invited to integrate into the formal economy by paying a 10% exit tax. The banks to whom these operators are to entrust the money they have accumulated will be responsible for turning this payment over to the government.

Operators of licensed professions (doctors and pharmacists in particular) on the other hand, can continue to sleep peacefully since they are—almost—entirely left out of the 2022 finance law. When a journalist pointed this detail out to Boughdiri by asking « why the tax rate for these professions was not increased? », the minister’s response was evasive: « When they are not subject to the direct tax scheme, these professions must pay a fine if their supplier does not apply a 1% fee ». A very « revolutionary » measure indeed.

President Saïed, who at one time seemed determined to spark a revolution that would bring more justice to the tax system, ultimately decided to swallow the poison that is the 2022 finance law. On December 28, he explained that he had « signed in spite of its shortcomings and unconvincing choices » and that « time was insufficient to achieve the people’s objectives relating to a just tax system ».

In the absence of any profound changes in this context, Tunisia will remain among the most unjust of African countries with regards to fiscal justice. And the numbers prove it; according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), physical persons in Tunisia contribute 22% to tax revenues, whereas businesses contribute 10%. It is precisely the opposite (18% to 19%) in 30 other African countries.