Taking the money they stole from the rich and redistributing it to the poor? The equation is simpler to pose than to solve, even when it is elevated to social policy by Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed. Presented as one of the major axes of the social policy of the government of Carthage, the recovery of the assets of businessmen accused of economic and financial offenses, in exchange for a judicial amnesty accompanied by fines, is supposed, on on paper, allow the Tunisian state to recover at least 13.5 billion dinars (nearly 4 billion euros). But collection is proving more difficult and less lucrative than expected for the authorities.

The body responsible for putting “criminal reconciliation” to music – the expression used to describe these recovery operations – only collected, between March 2022 and January 2024, 26.9 million dinars (8 million euros ). Faced with this meager record and with the official aim of facilitating recovery procedures, Parliament amended the law on Wednesday January 17 to allow President Kaïs Saïed and his national security council to force the hand of businessmen recalcitrant, without possibility of appeal. “Either you abdicate, or it’s the guillotine,” summarizes former magistrate Ahmed Souab. A project which, according to him, amounts to real “blackmail”.

Presented in detail on July 28, 2021, three days after the coup at the end of which Kaïs Saïed assumed full powers, the idea of ​​“penal reconciliation” is inspired by a report published in November 2011 by the national commission of investigation into acts of corruption and embezzlement headed by lawyer Abdelfattah Amor. Thanks to this work, 463 cases of embezzlement involving people accused of having unduly taken advantage of the system put in place under the dictatorship of former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali were investigated and sent to justice for amounts estimated at a total of 13.5 billion dinars. Sums that Kaïs Saïed hopes to recover to reinvest in development projects in favor of the most disadvantaged regions of the country.

“It’s become a souk.”

Former member of the commission for the confiscation of ill-gotten assets of President Ben Ali and his relatives, Ahmed Souad believes that the mission to recover the amount advanced by Kaïs Saïed is doomed to “predictable and inevitable failure”, particularly because it includes property confiscated or resold by the State after the fall of the old regime. “Most of the assets of many people affected are already held by the State. What will they return? “, he asks.

But the Tunisian president does not budge and, despite the objections expressed, does not hide his annoyance. “All these negotiations and procedures? it has become a souk,” he said impatiently on September 8, 2023 during a visit to the commission’s headquarters. “There is no negotiation, we are not here to discuss, we ask them to sign a check (…). If you want to pay, you are welcome, otherwise there is criminal prosecution,” he threatened.

The Tunisian justice system was quick to put these threats into effect with the arrest of several businessmen including Marouane Mabrouk, former son-in-law of the deposed president, and Abderrahim Zouari, former minister of transport, in November. 2023. Some, including Mr. Zouari, were released after paying bail of several million dinars and are still being pursued by the courts.

At the same time, thanks to the amendment of the law, the head of state – who chairs the national security council – will be able to decide himself the amount to pay, in a final and irrevocable manner, thus consolidating his coercive power. “In September, Kaïs Saïed said that anyone who wanted to avoid the courts and prison had to pay. Now, it is the one who wants to leave prison who will have to pay,” says Ahmed Souad ironically.

Legal proceedings are increasing

“It’s an institutional racketeering mechanism where we structure the blackmail system by forcing businessmen to sponsor and finance Kaïs Saïed’s project,” comments Louai Chebbi, president of the Alert association, which fights against rent economy in Tunisia. “By imprisoning people like Kamel Eltaïef [very influential businessman in political circles and who was for a long time the eminence grise of Ben Ali imprisoned in February 2023 for plotting against state security] or Marouane Mabrouk, we are looking for also to give itself political legitimacy, in the absence of electoral legitimacy lost after having illegally interfered with the democratic game.” According to the economist, this method would only aim to “control the economic system not to regulate it, in addition to justifying economic failures by attributing them to a system that resists”.

For several months, legal proceedings in the business world and in the banking sector have multiplied, dozens of people have been banned from traveling and political opponents have been accused of fueling speculation with the aim of destabilizing power, while the economic crisis is only growing with a budget deficit estimated at 6.6% of GDP in 2024 and a need for external financing whose sources are unknown.

In April 2023, the Tunisian president rejected the conditions of a $1.9 billion (nearly 1.8 billion euros) rescue plan discussed for several months between Tunisia and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). , raising fears of a risk of economic “collapse” expressed in particular by the European Union (EU) and rating agencies. “The alternative is that we have to rely on ourselves,” he then declared, notably putting forward a “penal reconciliation” project which was getting bogged down.