The third stage, “performing transitional justice,” relates to the operations of the transitional justice institutions, mainly the Truth and Dignity Commission, in practice. This stage was shaped by flattening cleavages, the closing of the “revolutionary window of opportunity” for accountability, and a “resurfacing” of “the system.” Political adversaries created external challenges, both subtle and direct, to the institutionalized project. The subtle obstacles included limited access to archives or delayed budget payments. These were used to create the impression that the truth commission was not working properly. As a civil society representative observed, “They will also continue to give the impression that the process continues, that the TDC continues. ‘Here, the TDC has problems, it is not us but the TDC that has problems … So, we may let [the commission] work, but it is not doing anything.’”21
More direct challenges included the introduction of competing legislation, the so-called “reconciliation law,” by President Essebsi. The bill aimed to offer amnesty to corrupt businessmen and administrative staff, and in its original form would have significantly curtailed the competencies of the Truth and Dignity Commission.22 Additionally, the transitional justice process was characterized by internal conflict and frictions among the commissioners as well as rumors surrounding them. The image of the commission was closely linked to its president, Sihem Ben Sedrine, who was often portrayed in research interviews as a polarizing rather than reconciling figure: “She is no Desmond Tutu,” a member of parliament remarked. 23 And a defector from the Truth and Dignity Commission criticized the president’s leadership style as authoritarian: “[The truth commission] is an authoritarian structure … effectively in the hands of Sihem Ben Sedrine.”24
During this stage, political preferences were clearly shifting away from transitional justice, with a continuous trend of prioritizing political compromise and elite deal making. However, the transitional justice process visibly developed limited autonomy from these shifting preferences. The president’s competing draft legislation, aimed at undermining the process, was not easy to pass, and nobody had planned the altered version that eventually passed (from “economic” to “administrative reconciliation law”). Moreover, the Truth and Dignity Commission conducted public hearings against the preferences of the country’s political leadership. Thus, in this stage transitional justice was partially performed despite challenges. In this context, the testimony of prominent figures from the Tunisian political and cultural realm could lend some credibility to accountability/justice claims. One prominent example is the testimony of writer Gilbert Naccache, who recounted political imprisonment and torture during the Bourguiba years.25 Another is Ben Ali’s nephew Imed Trabelsi, who gave testimony from prison and alleged that the nepotistic structures were still in place: “There was a revolution, but nothing has changed to my knowledge. I have my sources and the same system [of corruption] is still operational.”26
Frictions between the truth commission and the political sphere continued and some factions in parliament tried to deny the commission an extension of its mandate that was provided for by law through a controversial vote that was both contested in procedure and in substance. The responsible ministry then granted an extension until the end of 2018, which still meant that the commission had to terminate its operations before it could finish all its tasks. Eventually, the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission published its final report in March 2019, presenting results from over four years of work.
To sum up, in the third stage transitional justice was driven and defined by conflict and friction from both inside and outside the truth commission. The political trend went against the pursuit of justice and accountability measure. However, the transitional justice process could develop a certain degree of independence from political preferences and shifting power relations and perform their task despite the challenges.