One year ago today, a bill to audit the Tunisian public debt was submitted to the Assembly.
By Chafik Ben Rouine, Auditons les Créances envers la Tunisie (Campaign to Audit Tunisia’s debt), 17 July 2013.
The debt audit was one of the first economic and social demands to have emerged during the first phase of the revolution in Tunisia. Servicing debt in Tunisia is both a barrier to development and an instrument of plunder and submission inherent in the process of ensuring countries in the global south are indebted to countries in the north.
Submitting to international financial institutions like this also allowed the now deposed dictator to get rich on the back of the Tunisian people, thanks to the corrupt support of the lenders of these odious debts. An instrument of economic, social and political submission, and a political lever designed to ensure foreign interference, debt is key to the liberation of oppressed peoples. It is in this context that we are campaigning for a debt audit in Tunisia.
The debt audit is a powerful citizen tool that will allow the subtle techniques used to arrange illegitimate debts to be unravelled, debts that were not repayable and which constitute illegitimate debts, embezzlement and corruption. Unravel everything, understand what was done and learn from it to help us move towards a political system that’s more in line with the aspirations of the Tunisian people – that is the fundamental objective of the debt audit.
And yet the ground was not fertile in the narrow circles of power for this kind of initiative. Decades of reforms to the education system under the supervision of the World Bank had trained battalions adhering to all the key tenets of neoliberalism. Against all the odds, however, citizen mobilizations on both sides of the Mediterranean led to the European Parliament’s recognition of the odious nature of the debt in the Arab spring countries and the Belgian Senate passed a resolution in favour of an audit of Tunisian debt.
That enabled us to ensure the question of the debt audit was at the heart of policy formation in October 2011, when the very first democratic elections in Tunisia were held, a time of promises. Every party, from the Communists to the Islamists to the Social Democrats, said they were in favour of a debt audit. That was before the elections took place, of course. We took these politicians at their word, and increased the pressure on them after the election to realise their promises to audit the debt.
The example of Ecuador was at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the time. After a few meetings with some MPs who were interested in the project, including Mabrouka M’barek whose support was decisive, a bill was drafted and signed by MPs from all parties except Ennahdha. On 17 July 2012 an African parliament tabled for the very first time a bill on a citizens’ audit of public debt. It was a tribute to everyone who had risen up against the injustice of the debt that was used to humiliate and oppress the continent, and of course a tribute to the distinguished assassinated President of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara.
But that was without counting on the hysterical activism of the dominant international financial system: successive downgrades of Tunisia’s sovereign credit rating by the ratings agencies, diplomatic pressure and barely concealed threats exerted enormous pressure on the economically inexperienced fragile coalition government. Until one day in February 2013, under this unbearable pressure, when the Secretary of State for Finance at the time, Mr. Besbes, announced in the media that the proposed bill on the debt audit was being withdrawn.
Scandal in the Assembly! Mr Besbes, having ignored the democratic principle of the separation of power between the executive and the legislature, was forced to back down. This episode shows the extent to which the debt audit highlighted the duplicity of the Western powers which on the one hand support democracy in Tunisia but on the other hand weaken democracy in Tunisia as soon as their interests are threatened or there is the merest hint of a challenge to their dominance.
Since then, the bill has languished in a pile of other projects in the National Constituent Assembly. Tunisia’s political parties clearly don’t want to take a position on a subject they know is so sensitive it means you can see clearly who is genuinely representing the interests of the people and who is just continuing a political comedy that has already been going on for far too long. It is time to take action and pass this historic legislation that was first submitted to the Assembly on 17 July 2012, exactly one year ago today.