March 23, 2011 4:17 pm

Tunisian business faces up to murky past

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Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flanked by his wife Leila (L)

Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi had links to about 180 companies

Tunisia’s business community is trying to come to terms with the changed circumstances and aspirations of a post-revolutionary world, even as some of its members are dogged by the legacy of the former regime.

“It’s not every year we have a revolution,” Hichem Elloumi of the UTICA, the Tunisian employers’ association, argued during a radio discussion last week. “It’s not even every 10 years. We weren’t prepared for this.”

Following the overthrow in January of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, president for 23 years, the Tunisian press published revelations about public and private sector corruption. The business interests of relatives of Mr Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi, his wife, extended from car distribution and importing consumer products to retailing, cement, air transport, property, telecommunications, banking and the media.

The central bank estimates that in a country of 10m people, about 180 companies were controlled by individuals either related to Mr Ben Ali or Ms Trabelsi, or close associates of their families. The Jasmin Revolution had uncovered a banana republic.

Last month, the interim government identified 110 individuals whose assets were subject to seizure by the state, pending judicial decisions on whether they should face charges of corruption and embezzlement. An abbreviated list of 48 people has been adopted by the European Union and Swiss authorities.

Beyond these lists, there is a grey area of family-based conglomerates – in Tunisia most large business es are family-based – which chalked up rapid growth under Mr Ben Ali.

A company at first drawn unwillingly, or coerced, into the ruling family’s sphere of influence would nevertheless have benefited from access to public sector contracts and other opportunities, says Ridha Kefi, a business journalist. “They might have been obliged to let the Ben Ali or Trabelsi family buy into their business but they would also take advantage of it, at the bureaucratic level, to get the green light, to get permits, facilities, bank loans.”

In the heady post-revolutionary weeks, some proprietors of prominent family businesses were lobbying to keep their names off the Tunisian and Swiss lists.

By some accounts, the corruption was mainly domestic. Nejib Bouraoui, director of the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency, says the regime used to “think twice” about bullying and extracting bribes from large foreign investors. “They were very afraid of the free press [abroad],” he says.

France Telecom’s €260m investment in Orange Tunisie, a joint venture with Marwan Mabrouk, a son-in-law of Mr Ben Ali, has nevertheless come under scrutiny from the French media.

Mr Mabrouk’s assets were declared subject to seizure, but he has remained in Tunis to argue his corner before the new commission appointed to carry out preliminary investigations into alleged corruption.

France Telecom has said it is watching developments with interest. The commission, meanwhile, itself faces a legal challenge from lawyers who say it has usurped functions that belong to the judicial system.

The UTICA, which under Mr Ben Ali was an arena in which to co-opt and silence dissent and gain funding, has been undergoing its own internal revolution and its former leadership has been ousted.

If much of Tunisia’s business community was glad to see the end of a regime that was strangling independent enterprise, the revolution also brought short-term distress. Mr Elloumi of the UTICA referred to weeks of disruption for businesses.

The UGTT labour confederation, facing its own credibility problems, has sought to assert its revolutionary credentials by supporting a wave of wage demands and industrial action.

Amid forecasts of zero economic growth for Tunisia this year, and with many thousands of Tunisians returning from Libya to swell the ranks of the unemployed, some voices are arguing for leniency towards those who profited under Mr Ben Ali’s rule.

Abdelaziz Darghouth, whose family’s textile business was outside the president’s magic circle, has been outspoken in urging reform within the UTICA, but he advocates case-by-case negotiated solutions for companies favoured by the former regime.

“It would be better for such companies to make compensation payments than for their owners to be sent to prison,” he says. “If these people were capable of donating so much money to supporting Ben Ali’s re-
election each time, they can now spend it on reconstructing the economy of the country – and the region.”

Whether such compromise is acceptable to broader public opinion is an open question. “It will be very difficult to persuade the public,” Mr Darghouth admits. “But when they see that the government has practical solutions, I’m sure they will change their minds.”

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