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Law of the Future in Tunisia

In Tunisia they are working to build the law of the future. Law that does not oppress, that is fair and not applied capriciously, and that is applied even-handedly. The challenges are enormous because the law most people in Tunisia know is not like that.

I was in Sousse, the third largest city in Tunisia, and was being driven up a hill, down an asphalt road that looked slightly nicer than the one we just got off, and not just because it was lined with lights that looked as though they had been taken straight from a centre ville Paris avenue.

“Nice houses, aren’t they? We were not allowed on this hill. Ben Ali took the land and built that house for himself.” The taxi driver pointed to a large brown-stone villa on the top of the hill. “And these houses (pointing to the other villa’s built around it), were built for family and close friends.”

A classy presidential holiday village near the coast, built on an expropriated hill closed off from the public. That’s the law the people from Sousse saw when they looked up, land inwards.

“Now the houses are empty..” the taxi driver remarked, “… and I can drive on this road. We were amazed when we first saw it. But what will happen with all this?”

I could see the law taking ages to sort out how to unravel this mess, especially given the state of the judicial system and the broader governance challenges Tunisia is facing.

“The revolution has not brought us much, except for democracy.”, said another taxi driver a few days later, as he put down his mobile phone and switched gears. “I tell you the truth, cos I trust you: it was better under Ben Ali.“

“See those policemen?”. He pointed to four uniforms standing on curb of the main road, next to a small harmonica fence that they had rolled out. The idea seemed to be to randomly stop vehicles for checks behind the little portable fence.

“They’re not doing much, see? Under Ben Ali, they would stop us much more often. Check your papers, your safety belt, and see whether you were properly shaven (walaheh! – long beards were not allowed cos they scare tourists). They nearly always found something wrong and we would have to pay 5 or 10 dinars. That’s how they made their money. You know, these guys make only 300 dinars a month! There were many of them, and they worked a lot. So we paid a lot. That’s over now. They work less – regarde – and they don’t ask for bribes anymore. They are too afraid to. Democracy.”

I thought that was the good ending.

“But that’s pas bon!” he continued. “I live in a small village outside Sousse. Since the revolution, our police station always closes around 6 every afternoon. They put a big lock on the door and go off to Monastir. We are left without police all night. Crime has gone up. There are many young guys with no work. They don’t steal from tourists, but from us. Sheep, spare parts for cars, stuff like that. And guys with dogs walk the streets at night and scare people. Mafia. They are in charge. And when we call the police? They only come when there is a murder, and even then only after five hours! We did not have that with all our corrupt policemen!”

So corruption also bought safety and security. A lot of hard working policemen.

Two conversations that unearthed the complex relationship between democracy, rule of law, corruption, and security. Building the law of the future in such an environment is hugely complex. At the basis of it all lays the very idea that government can be good. That’s not a widely shared idea. To get traction for that idea government needs to deliver security, jobs, and justice. The World Bank Development Report 2011 (http://wdr2011.worldbank.org/fulltext), one of the best ones I have read in many years, highlights the same triad, based on solid empirical research. It also shows there are no quick fixes for countries like Tunisia, making the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy and rule of law. Slowly working your way up through small, visible successes built on things that work, with many built-in learning loops. That’s the picture they sketch.

Tunisia has one great opportunity: the type of transition it is going through also provides a great innovation window. A chance to change things that are hugely difficult to change in so-called ‘stable’ countries, because of vested interests. In the justice field a recent report on Basic Justice Care (http://www.hiil.org/publication/strategies-towards-basic-justice-care) suggests some interesting and worthwhile innovation avenues that can be pursued.

I hope that the international community will help Tunisia innovate, will engage beyond the customary four year election cycle, and will listen to the stories of taxi drivers.

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