Published on Arab Voices

Have Tunisia's Golden Boys Survived the Revolution?

ImageThere is a remarkable connection between the public and private sectors in Tunisia, an intersection that I prefer to call “the Golden Boys”. It seems that Tunisia has not learned from its past mistakes; in fact, it risks going back to the old days when an elite benefited from state resources and got rich at other peoples’ expense. Everything points to the fact that Tunisia is once again providing fertile ground for corruption. The same mistakes it made in the 1970s might be repeated. In order to get a clearer picture of the current situation, a brief historical overview might be useful:
A moment of socialism in Tunisia in the 1970s led to the state monopoly of all means of production. Later, under the government of Prime Minister Hedi Nouira in the 1980s, the country reverted to a liberal economic system. In the change from socialism to liberalism, it witnessed the emergence of a second generation of wealthy businessmen known as the ‘Golden Boys.’
Most Tunisian Golden Boys were former government officials who’d resigned from the public sector to become businessmen. In government, they’d had access to information that Tunisia was heading back towards becoming a liberal economy. So while everyone else in Tunisia was afraid of socialism and selling their assets, and while the state was confiscating lands and means of production, the Golden Boys were buying things up as they knew economic liberalism would be re-instated soon.
Nouira’s government was the first to lay the foundations of privatization in Tunisia, making its former public officials Golden Boys for decades to come. The virtual monopoly Golden Boys had over Tunisia’s economy led to more corruption, the killing off of competition, and the absence of new players on the economic domain. The Boys used their own networks within the Tunisian administration to influence the course of bidding in their favor when it came to public procurement (the system through which governments award contracts for goods or work to private companies). So, just as the Tunisian state is the country’s richest client—one third of its budget is spent on procurement—those who manage to win state bids secure tremendous profit.
Did things change after the 2011 revolution? Things changed for the worse maybe. After the revolution, when everybody expected to see less corruption, the opposite occurred. The lack of political will to fight corruption, and the lack of compliance between Tunisian law and international conventions, created the environment for corruption to flourish. The public sector became a place embodying nepotism and conflicts of interest.
If we add to this the lack of transparency in public procurement and in property rights, the absence of a fair and competition-friendly environment, and the growing influence of lobby groups and chambers of commerce, Tunisia’s next generation of Golden Boys is already well on its way to loading up. Every day, business lobbies are getting more and more influential—and in a way that provides them a degree of immunity. After the revolution, there was a list of more than 400 Tunisian businessmen (the majority of them Golden Boys) who were banned from international travel by the interim government authorities, and said to be under investigation for corruption. Today, less than 40 people are still on that list. If Tunisia wants to build a new, transparent economic system, the first thing to start with is ending the sort of impunity that allows alleged Golden Boys to get their names deleted from that list without any trial or public process of accountability.  

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Bank


Achref Aouadi

Founder and President, I Watch

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