Only the beginning for Tunisia

Tunisia’s new leaders face the same economic problems that caused the protests ousting the president. Published in MEED, 21 January 2011

With Tunisia struggling to put together a national unity government, the process of rebuilding the country’s political system looks like it will be a long and difficult one. Tunisians will certainly be better off without the corrupt rule of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, but the economic issues which lay at the heart of the protest movement also remain, as they do in many countries around the region. Once the euphoria of the revolution has died down, the country’s new leaders will have to find ways of creating jobs and boosting salaries – goals which proved beyond the reach of Ben Ali.

The first challenge facing Tunisia is to restore public order and ensure there is a credible government to run the country until new elections can be held. Under the constitution, presidential elections should take place within 60 days, although a political compromise may yet be made to delay them so that opposition parties have a chance to organise themselves. For now, however, there is no clear frontrunner to succeed Ben Ali.

Lack of leaders for Tunisia

Interim president, 78-year-old Fouad Mebazaa, is barred from running under Article 57 of the constitution, although his age would also disqualify him. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has the advantage of having the organisational muscle of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally party behind him, but he may be too closely associated with the former regime to win a free and fair election. That is also likely to be the case for others who had been seen as possible successors, such as Abdelwahab Abdallah, a former foreign minister and subsequently foreign policy adviser to Ben Ali.

Opposition parties suffer from a lack of finance and organisation, which could dent their ability to run effective election campaigns. “The opposition parties are completely disorganised, other than having a plate on the door,” says Mohamed Ben-Madani, editor of the Maghreb Review. “They have no programme and they haven’t much to offer.”

If they stay in the government, the cabinet posts given to some opposition leaders could yet provide a platform to launch a presidential bid, but Ben Ali’s assiduous suppression of potential rivals throughout his 23 years in office means all are starting from a low base.

“Nobody stands out as particularly charismatic or with a particularly strong power base,” says Emma Murphy, professor in the School of Government & International Affairs at the University of Durham in the UK.

Whatever the shape of the new leadership, the economic challenges facing the country remain immense. It was economic problems that first brought people onto the streets in mid-December and any new government will be judged on how well it now tackles them.

At first, the protesters marched in sympathy for 26 year-old unemployed graduate Mohammed Bouazizi, who had set himself alight in Sidi Bouzid after police confiscated the produce of his unlicensed fruit and vegetable stall. The protests soon became the vehicle for a far wider range of complaints, including corruption and political repression, but unemployment remains the critical issue facing the country.

Officially, it is running at 13 per cent, but in rural areas it is thought to be closer to 25-30 per cent, and, among young people, perhaps as high as 50 per cent. “There’s only so many people the public sector can hire. Private firms are the dominant force in the economy, but many aren’t that big,” says a source in Tunis.

“It’s not as if there are just pockets of unemployment,” says Murphy. “This is a national problem. At the same time as you get unemployment, you also get pockets of real wealth and conspicuous consumption.”

The options for any new government trying to resolve the economy’s structural problems remain limited. Tunisia remains heavily dependent on Europe to buy its products. Some 74 per cent of exports go to the EU, but the recession there means that demand is unlikely to revive soon.

In any case, the textiles and olive oil that Europe buys from Tunisia do not create many high paying jobs for the 80,000 graduates that the country’s universities produce each year. Similarly, the tourism industry, which is likely to suffer a downturn in the short-term at least, mostly offers low paid and low skill jobs.

“To say Tunisia is heavily dependent on European markets is an understatement,” says Christopher Alexander, associate professor at Davidson College in North Carolina and author of Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb. “In terms of trade, Tunisia is really crunched by the fact that most of the goods it can supply through exports happen to be goods that are either supplied by southern European countries or are pretty low-priced goods that face serious competition from East Asia.”

Tunisia clearly needs to find more export markets, but it also needs to find more industries and economic niches. “Like Morocco, Tunisia would like to develop trade with sub Saharan Africa, but that’s a two-way trade and it needs to find suitable goods,” says the source in Tunis.

The country is trying to venture into new areas, developing a network of technology parks around the country, for example, which are focused on areas such as agribusiness and telecoms, but such ventures rely on foreign direct investment. It is here the new government could perhaps make the biggest difference, by removing some of the barriers to investment.

“People who are looking at investment opportunities find the bureaucratic and administrative landscape in Tunisia prohibitive,” says Alexander. “They complain that the investment code is still too restrictive, the amount of red tape is still too time-consuming. Related to that is the corruption.

“Tunisia doesn’t have a lot to offer other than a pretty well educated workforce, by regional standards, and proximity to Europe. If that’s all you’ve got, you’ve really got to get everything else right if you want to attract investment.”

A further area where the new government can act is to clamp down on corruption, which should now be easier with a change in regime. The rumours of malfeasance, which swirled around the extended family of Ben Ali, and in particular that of his second wife Leila Trabelsi, were one of the key elements that stoked the fires of protest. They also hindered foreign investment in the country.

The corruption allegations were laid out succinctly by the US embassy in Tunis in a series of despatches to Washington in 2008 and 2009, which were subsequently published by the whistleblowing Wikileaks website.

“Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumoured [sic] to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants,” said one cable sent on 23 June 2008, entitled Corruption in Tunisia: What’s Yours is Mine.

Members of the Trabelsi family controlled many of the major economic assets in the country. Now that Ben Ali has been forced from power there could be dramatic shifts in the balance of power in the business world, just as radical as in the political world. In addition, without the presence of a family intent on getting a cut of most major deals, multinational companies may look anew at the country and its well-educated population.

Middle East concerns for Tunisia

In the meantime, regimes across the Arab world will be watching the developments in Tunisia with concern. Previously reliable methods of repression failed spectacularly in Tunisia, where the army ultimately refused to back Ben Ali in the face of mass opposition. In addition, the protests themselves erupted from a seemingly prosaic act by the police, spiralling into a movement expressing its anger at decades of repression and broken promises.

Over the past month, there has been a series of protests in Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Jordan, where locals have a similar list of complaints to their peers in Tunisia. Unemployment is high and prospects are limited for the generation now emerging from schools and universities. Although the Tunisian revolution has become a rallying cry for protestors in other countries, its success will ensure authorities keep an even closer eye on citizens.

If any country is to follow Tunisia, it will need to have a similar mix of a widespread and brave opposition movement prepared to face down security forces.

In Tunisia, meanwhile, where ousting Ben Ali seemed an impossible task just a few weeks ago, the hard work of turning the country’s economy around and redressing the failings of the last regime has only just begun.