Samir Annabi, head of Tunisia's anti-graft commission
Tunis - AFP
Petty graft plagues Tunisia's economy, nearly five years after state corruption triggered the fall of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, partly due to lack of political will, experts say.
Corruption was endemic under long-time dictator Ben Ali, whose close circle -- especially his wife's family -- had an iron grip on the economy.
Public debate has again centred around the topic after President Beji Caid Essebsi in July presented to the cabinet a draft "economic and financial reconciliation" bill that would grant amnesty to those convicted of corruption if they return stolen public money and pay fines.
Hundreds of Tunisians defied a protest ban last month to demonstrate against the draft law, which they see as absolving the "corrupt" of their crimes.
Several people have been jailed on corruption charges or have fled the country since Ben Ali's ouster.
Today, "large-scale corruption has been put on pause... notably because there haven't been any big projects due to security, economic and social instability," Samir Annabi, head of the national anti-graft commission set up in late 2011, told AFP.
But "petty corruption has been on the rise," he said. "Ben Ali's large-scale corruption has disappeared to give way to the trivialisation of petty corruption."
Common occurrences include tax evasion, doctored entry exam results for public sector jobs and bribes to speed up official paperwork.
At least 450 million dinars (200 million euros/$230 million) in bribes were slipped to state employees in 2013 alone, according to a study conducted by the Tunisian Association for Public Auditors.
But although there is hard evidence against those responsible, some of them have been promoted instead of being punished, said Sharfeddine Yakhoubi, the head of the association.
Beyond the civil service, "a new generation of businessmen and politicians have grown richer" since the 2011 revolution, sometimes gaining from this rampant corruption, added Mouheb Garoui, who heads "I Watch", a branch of corruption watchdog Transparency International.
- Government 'held hostage' -
In total, corruption costs Tunisia the equivalent of two percent of its gross domestic product, said a World Bank report titled "The Unfinished Revolution", adding that this loss was particularly costly for an emerging democracy with a flailing economy.
Deep-rooted corruption is further illustrated in Transparency's annual Corruption Perceptions Index ranking in which Tunisia fell from 59th to 79th place out of more than 170 countries from 2010 to 2014.
According to experts, this drop is mostly due to the lack of any effective anti-corruption measures from successive governments despite them officially putting the fight against corruption high on their agenda.
"There's great resistance," national anti-corruption commission head Annabi said. "Even if the government had the will to do it, the civil service -- excuse the expression -- holds it hostage."
Annabi said his commission had only received a limited budget "after a long fight" and said that "while a few civil servants were made available, they are now being removed one by one."
The constitution adopted in early 2014 provides for a new "good governance and anti-corruption" authority, but it has still not been created.
In May, Essebsi, Tunisia's first democratically elected president, and US President Barack Obama published a column in the Washington Post after meeting at the White House.
"The old regime's legacy of mismanagement and corruption continues to stifle economic growth" in Tunisia, they wrote.
Tarek Bahri, who is in charge of governance at the presidency, told AFP that the fight to stamp out corruption constituted "the backbone of the 2016-2020 development plan".
But if the "reconciliation" draft bill is eventually passed after being discussed in parliament, "corruption could instead be reinforced," Garoui from "I Watch" said.Authorities, who maintain that the new bill will be a way of "turning over a new leaf" and relaunching the economy, hope that the law will allow them to recover up to 700 million euros ($780 million).