For the past few weeks, Sana Shili, a 23-year-old raven-haired student, has been dedicating less time to her books. Instead, she and her friends have been plastering “wanted” posters in public places in cities all across Tunisia.
The posters are often swiftly taken down by authorities, she said.
Shili is a founding member of a movement called Manich Msamah (“I Will Not Forgive” in Arabic), and the posters feature members of the regime of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who led the country for 23 years before fleeing it in 2011. Ben Ali was the first leader ousted in what became known as the Arab Spring uprisings.
Manich Msamah has been mobilizing on social media and protesting in cities. The reason: a bill spearheaded by President Beji Caid Essebsi and scheduled to be debated and voted on in parliament this week. If adopted, the bill would grant amnesty to corrupt businessmen and public officials under investigation for acts related to financial corruption and misuse of public funds, in exchange for repayment of the embezzled money.
Among the members of Nidaa Tounes, the party founded by Essebsi, are officials and businessmen close to the pre-2011 regime.
Shili says the bill betrays the ideals of the revolution.
“We can’t let them get away with corruption,” she said over coffee on Bourguiba Avenue, the capital’s tree-lined main thoroughfare that was the focal point of protests. “When I read the bill, I remembered why I joined the revolution. I don’t want to live like my parents.”
A wide range of Tunisians share those concerns, including Tunisian and international civil society organizations, as well as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“This bill comes as a surprise, contradicts the constitution and transitional justice process, and gives way to impunity,” said Chaima Bouhlel, a member of the Tunisian watchdog Al-Bawsala. “’Yes, these are difficult times, but we are setting the stones for the future. We need to send a signal that this country is not corrupt and based on the rule of law.”
The government previously sought approval for the proposed law last year, but it was shelved amid a public outcry. Critics say the bill was reintroduced during Ramadan and ahead of summer recess to avoid attention this time.
During a time of low economic growth and a large deficit, the president and other supporters of the bill say it would allow for the recovery of lost state assets that could be reinvested in the economy.
Wafa Makhlouf, a deputy for Nidaa Tounes in parliament, said that in order for the country to move forward, pragmatism might have to prevail.
“There is gridlock in the administration, because public officials are afraid of prosecution and hesitant to make decisions. And we have to accept that figures from the previous regime want to contribute. This law has the potential to bring real change and economic investment,” she said.