Under former dictator, corruption stunted economic growth in Tunisia

Tunisian demonstrators shout slogans and wave signs during a session at the National Assembly in Tunis.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: We still don't know exactly what's going to happen with the government and the economy in Egypt, but it's been almost three weeks since Tunisians decided what they wanted to do. After forcing President Ben Ali into exile, they've had to figure out how to put their country back together again. Right up there on the list of challenges is undoing what 23 years of official corruption has done to their economy.

Sabri Ben-Achour reports from Tunis.


Sound of Tunisian protestors

Sabri Ben-Achour: A couple weeks after Tunisia's former president fled the country, a sign that used to read "Ministry of Finance" was crossed out, and read instead "Ministry of Thieves." Protesters were railing against what's known as "rashwa," or corruption.

Noura Houidi is an Arabic major in Tunis.

Noura Houidi: I work hard. I spend nights. I look forward for doing many things for my family. And then when I finish my studies, there is an exam, which is a nightmare. You must bribe people in order to get it.

Everybody has a story about rashwa, paying a bribe to get a passport, a legal document, a job, even government subsidies. Tunisians trace the source of this culture of corruption through a familiar proverb.

Maher Kallel: A rotten fish starts at the head.

That's Maher Kallel. He said the ultimate rotten fish head was Zine Ben Ali, Tunisia's former dictator and his family. Kallell is an investment advisor for Poulinat, Tunisia's largest holding company. They trade in everything from toothpaste to mufflers to chickens. He said corruption trickled down from the Ben Ali family through the ruling party and down into society at large.

Kallel: If the manager does that, then I also can do that. This is how corruption is created. If the boss is using privileges for his family, then also I should do the same.

Kallel said Ben Ali targeted Poulinat with bogus audits and then personally offered to make them go away if Poulinat paid $35 million.

Kallel: And we paid.

Worse, Maher said, was what he calls a "parallel economy," where friends and family of the former dictator could get out of paying import taxes and undercut domestic producers.

Kallel: From my calculus, we lost two to three points of growth.

In the lobby of a former bank in downtown Tunis, a throng of very upset people is waiting to testify. This is the National Commission on Corruption and Embezzlement, set up by the new provisional government. Abdelfattah Amor, a former U.N. Special Reporter for Human Rights, was appointed to run it. He's gotten close to a thousand formal complaints in just a few days.

Abdelfattah Amor: I hope we won't be drowned by all this demand.

The plan is to document, investigate and then prosecute as many cases as possible. He has no idea how long that will take. The biggest challenge is the pervasiveness of the problem.

Amor: What is fundamentally important is that we develop a new culture of integrity and property.

Tunisians sent a strong message that that's the culture they want. And while they acknowledge it certainly won't happen overnight, they see promise in the fact that the rotten fish head is of Zine Ben Ali and his cronies is gone.

In Tunis, I'm Sabri Ben-Achour for Marketplace.

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