Swift justice in Tunisia

Or should that be swift 'justice?'

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted Tunisian dictator, didn't get his day in court, but that was by design. He refused to return from Saudi Arabian exile for his trial (the Saudis ignored an extradition request) and dismissed the proceedings as a sham. "Victors' justice," he called it in a statement.

Mr. Ben Ali, whose friends and relatives amassed vast personal fortunes during his rule of Tunisia, is the very picture of a kleptocrat and his family was generally reviled by the Tunisian public.

"President Ben Ali's extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption," US Ambassador Robert Godec wrote in a 2008 diplomatic cable that was released last year by Wikileaks. "Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of "the Family" is enough to indicate which family you mean."

But the conviction of Ben Ali and his wife yesterday on embezzlement charges came with breathtaking speed. After 23 years in power, a Tunis court needed just a few hours to sentence the pair to 35 years in jail and more than $60 million in fines.

The swiftness of the verdict is a little troubling (there will be future trials on more than 90 other charges against Ben Ali and his extended entourage). If the point is to put a stamp on the Ben Ali's era of impunity and corruption, to say that an independent judiciary is now in charge and no future Ben Ali will be allowed to emerge, this was hardly the deliberate and cautious turning of the wheels of justice.

I touched on this a little yesterday. Trying and convicting a long-standing dictator can be cathartic for citizens (and, of course, politically useful for the new powers that be). But by itself it doesn't do much to create the institutions of justice or democracy.

While the spectacular corruption of the first family required and still requires action, it is a symptom of a much broader problem that plagues Tunisian society: The petty corruption and bribery that plagues the lives of average citizens, on almost a daily basis.

Getting to grips with corrupt cops and minor officials, creating a business environment where investors will be protected rather than preyed on by the state, and creating institutions that are resistant to those kinds of abuses is the real task in front of Tunisia now. Ambassador Godec's prescient cable for 2008 touches on this.

"Corruption is a problem that is at once both political and economic. The lack of transparency and accountability that characterize Tunisia's political system similarly plague the economy, damaging the investment climate and fueling a culture of corruption. For all the talk of a Tunisian economic miracle and all the positive statistics, the fact that Tunisia's own investors are steering clear speaks volumes. Corruption is the elephant in the room; it is the problem everyone knows about, but no one can publicly acknowledge."

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