Adam Le Nevez - Tunisia Live - Man waving a loaf of bread during a protest in Tunis on January 24th 2011 - Photo taken by Talel Nacer
For a country that went into revolution on the back of endemic poverty and unemployment a little over a year ago, the recent unemployment data in Tunisia make for sobering reading.
738,400 Tunisians are out of work, up from just over 700 000 six months earlier. The unemployment rate is now 18.9%, a half-yearly rise of 0.6%. And while the overall number of people with jobs increased, the number of people entering the labor market grew at a much greater rate.
The causes of Tunisia’s recent economic difficulties have been widely reported. Uncertainty following the revolution led to sharp drops in tourist numbers and political uncertainty has seen foreign investment – particularly from Europe – decline sharply. In 2011 the economy contracted by nearly 2% and 153 foreign ventures left the country. The fact that Tunisia’s largest trading partner, the European Union, has also been experiencing a protracted downturn and financial crisis has not helped the situation in the least.
The revolution and the transitional period provided a major shock to the Tunisian economy but it was not the source of Tunisia’s economic woes. On the contrary, the revolution was first and foremost a consequence of years of economic neglect and mismanagement. The protests that began in the poor rural regions at the end of 2010, and reached a critical mass with the self-immolation of itinerant fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi, came about because of profound inequities in the economic and social system. The demands of the protestors were basic: work, dignity and an end to cronyism and corruption. Those demands are still being made today.
The Tunisian economist Mahmoud Ben Romdhane argues that although the revolution had a profound effect on the economy – in particular in damaging investor confidence – the origins of the economic difficulties Tunisia is currently facing predate the January 2011 uprising. For Ben Romdhane high unemployment has been exacerbated by an economy that is beset by internal contradictions and is in need of modernizing. His argument is supported by historical unemployment data. Since 2006 the unemployment rate has persistently remained well above 10% for men and 15% for women.
One of the main problems the new government has to deal with is the sclerotic state of the economy it has inherited from the former regime. The system that emerged under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was built first and foremost to serve the President and his acolytes and concentrated wealth and investment around their own economic interests. The high degree of regulation in the economy in favor of established interests was a major brake on innovation and entrepreneurship.
Ben Ali and the Trabelsi clan may have gone but the system they presided over for 23 years is still extensively in place. Although many middle-ranking officials associated with the regime have been forced from power, the hydra of corruption and nepotism that the former regime cultivated remains entrenched in many parts of Tunisian society. Tunisians still complain that jobs are not rewarded by merit but by personal contacts and in many cases money.
For Wissem Ghorbel, former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment, the unemployment data also point to systemic failures in the way young people are prepared for the workforce. Development in the tertiary education sector has not been matched by development in the broader economy, leading to a situation where tens of thousands of graduates leave university with poor prospects of finding work in their area of study. Of the 120,000 people who enter the labor market every year, 70,000 have a tertiary degree. The economy is totally unable to integrate these graduates, leading to an unemployment rate for Tunisia’s best educated citizens of over 30%.
These issues point to a key problem for the government: unemployment in Tunisia is not simply the result of a cyclical downturn, it is the result of systemic and structural problems in the economy. Creating employment cannot simply be achieved by economic stimulation – what is needed are deep reforms to a system that is poorly adapted to the needs of a modern democratic society. Ghorbel argues however that in order for this to occur the government needs to establish their political and technical credentials as competent policy makers and economic managers.
A need for clear policy and good government
While the government cannot be blamed for the problems they have inherited, they will ultimately be judged by voters on how well they have responded to the systemic causes of unrest.
The revolution was based on the key principles of dignity, freedom and opportunity, not only in a political sense but in an economic sense as well. Tunisians are looking to the constituent assembly to enshrine their political rights in the new constitution but they are also demanding to acquire those rights in their daily lives. The country’s unemployed and poor are not only demanding the right to earn a living wage, they are also demanding the job that will allow them to do so.
While the constituent assembly has been undertaking a lengthy debate about national identity and the political system, it has not sufficiently been addressing issues of endemic poverty and unemployment, according to Ghorbel. He suggests while the revolution and post-revolution transition has provided the opportunity to embark in new directions, it has also created uncertainty for investors and industry. “Confidence and trust between the state and investors must be reestablished but we can’t speak about confidence and trust without a clear policy from the government” he said.
Ben Romdhane agrees that reestablishing social stability and confidence is a prerequisite for a change in Tunisia’s economic conditions. To do this, he argues, the government needs to demonstrate to the public that it understands their demands and is sensitive to their needs. At heart “the problem is political, it’s not economic”, he says.
Both Ghorbel’s and Ben Romdhane’s criticism reflects a growing public perception that the government has become bogged down in an intellectual and ideological debate about identity and values at the expense of developing a program of reforms that will lead to the creation of jobs. “They discuss issues such as the national anthem, the niqab and asylum for Assad but they don’t address the principles of the revolution” says Ghorbel.
The fall into sectarian politics in the Constituent Assembly is in stark contrast to early hopes of a unity government and the drafting of a new constitution based on consensus. The governing troika – the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, the the center-left Congress for the Republic and the center-left Ettakatol – may have found a way to put their ideological differences aside for the time being, but few commentators see this arrangement as anything other than a marriage of convenience – and an increasingly acrimonious one at that. Reported defections and resignations from Ettakatol suggest a growing disenchantment with the rank and file members of the party while Ennahda is increasingly feeling the squeeze from democrats on one side and Salafists on the other. Many liberals accuse Ennahda of a double discourse on the issue of political Islam and are waiting for the party to declare its hand on issues such as Sharia law.
Although many of the government ministers are experts in their field, not one minister has had previous experience in office. The learning curve for many has been steep, both in terms of politics and administration. Not only does the Assembly need to develop a culture of debate and negotiation, ministers need to gain experience in managing their portfolios. As Ben Romdhane put it “we need high-level expertise in government and we are not always there”.
The lack of political experience in Tunisia’s first democratic parliament is in many ways understandable. Many, including President Marzouki and Prime Minister Jebali, spent years in prison or exile under the former regime and are more accustomed to playing the role of dissident than leader. The transition has sometimes been problematic. Marzouki in particular has developed a reputation for making inappropriate off-the-cuff comments and has been forced to apologize more than once.
However, Tunisians are growing increasingly impatient with the slow pace of reform and the lack of concrete outcomes from the parliamentary sessions. When more than 60 members of the opposition walked out of a parliamentary debate on March 1 in a dispute over the length of question time in the parliament, the message they were sending was one of an inability of the parliament to establish the clear and transparent procedures that will allow it to function as a democratic institution.
For many, the incessant squabbling over procedural matters is unedifying not just for the protagonists but for the image of the country as a whole. Above all, it does nothing to address the fundamental reasons why these men and women were put into parliament in the first place – to address the basic rights of a population that has suffered from decades of abuse and the basic needs of a society that has suffered from decades of economic neglect.