Tunisia’s post-revolutionary transition has entered a new phase as Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali abandoned his attempts at a government reshuffle, leaving it up to minister of the interior, Ali Lariedh, to form the new cabinet.
It has been a bumpy road since the 23 of October 2011 elections which ushered into power the Islamist party “Ennahdha” and two junior coalition partners. The process of drafting the constitution took longer than expected. Disagreements about identitary and societal provisions slowed down the process.
Tense polarization rendered the negotiation of compromises even more arduous. Violence and episodic armed confrontations added to the instability. In the middle of an-already bumpy road, extreme turbulence shook the country with the assassination of leftist leader Chokri Belaid.
Against such a background, the new head of government’s main mandate will be to ensure the political and economic stability of the country – as a prelude to next elections. A poll conducted last July by the Pew Global Attitudes Project revealed that “improved economic conditions” is the top priority for 92% of Tunisians , followed by both “law and order” and “fair judiciary” (79%), and then “honest elections” (77%).
Making the final arrangements for general elections, which are expected to take place by the end of this year, will require intense negotiations across the political spectrum in order to overcome the hurdles of both distrust and genuine differences of opinion about the modalities of the vote and the future system of government.
But the top-two priorities of security and economic recovery will hinge on more than the good-will of the country’s political protagonists. Considering obvious regional ramifications, especially those related to trans-border arms proliferation, addressing the security problem will require close coordination with Tunisia’s neighbors and beyond. Recent discovery of arms caches in the south, then in the greater Tunis area, have further exacerbated the concerns of the population. The new Prime Minister, a former minister of the interior, probably knows this subject-matter better than anybody else.
Security problems, whether perceived or real, discourage foreign investment and tourism, both crucial sectors for Tunisia’s economic recovery. Much of the current unrest is related to the enduring socio economic roots of discontent that have triggered the December 2010-January revolution in Tunisia. But youth unemployment, regional disparities, and slow economic growth do not have short-term solutions. Coupled with the impatience of the dissatisfied fringes of the population, such problems breed sit-ins, work stoppages, strikes and even more violent forms of unrest. Many experts also believe the ascent of Salafi radicalism is is not unrelated to socio-economic discontent. In its report, released this month, about “violence and the Salafist challenge in Tunisia,” the International Crisis Group pointed out that the perpetrators of violence in the country are “usually 15 to 35 year olds, inhabiting the surrounding regions of rural areas or marginalized small towns in the interior. They have a low level of education and are mostly unemployed”.
Recent official figures show an improvement of overall economic growth and employment figures in 2012 compared to 2011. But the ratio of unemployed university graduates, a problem inherited from a decade-old chronic mismatch between university education and the job market, is still a concern. 33% of young graduates (and at 47.5% for women in particular) were out of a job at the end of 2012. Regions of the country are still variably impacted by unemployment. The interior and the south are worse off than the eastern coast. With nearly 26% unemployment, the southeastern part of the country is the hardest hit. That particular region would greatly benefit from a stabilized border situation with Libya.
Political instability obviously affects the perception of potential foreign donors, creditors and investors. The International Monetary Fund, which is negotiating a $1.78 billion “stand-by arrangement” with Tunisia, has linked its future decisions to the evolution of the political climate. “Once a new government is named, we will enquire about its intentions/mandate. Once the political situation is clarified, we'll assess how best to help Tunisia," an IMF spokesperson told Reuters earlier this week. The inability to agree on the form of government as well as the murder of the leftist leader led Standard & Poor’s to lower the country ratings by one level, to BB- "We anticipate that Tunisia's economic recovery will be slow, particularly given the weak economic conditions in the EU,” it said. Wided Bouchamaoui, president of the national business federation, warned on Wednesday that many foreign companies could leave the country as a result of the political and economic instability. “I am not really able to send a message to reassure foreign investors,” she added. Sending the right signals to the economic partners will be therefore crucial. With Western Europe in the throes of its own economic crisis, there is a rationale for a new strategy aimed at attracting Arab Gulf investors.
There is however a need for a more proactive attitude on the part of Tunisia’s regional and international partners. The editorial board of the Bloomberg news agency recently recalled what it described as the “shameful act of grandstanding” of the 2011 Deauville summit, which had pledged a support package of $70 billion to Arab Spring countries, but did not even come close to fulfilling that pledge. “The real sin of Deauville was to raise unrealistic expectations, already stratospheric in the Arab Spring countries, and then to disappoint them”, said the Bloomberg editors.
The problem with the “what-and-see” attitude of Tunisia’s traditional partners is that it could end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Financial Times editor Philip Stephens asked the other day: “And why, I wonder, have neither the Europeans nor Americans done anything much to help nurture stability in the place where all this started – Tunisia. Is it really easier to dispatch troops than to provide economic aid and to open rich western markets to nascent Arab democracies?”
The most important reassuring signal to the outside world would for Tunisians to take a step away from their self-destructive polarization. Negotiations over the government reshuffle have had the merit of bringing together most of the country’s political protagonists around the same table. It is obvious to all that it takes more than a new head of government to save Tunisia from its own demons. Only an inclusive approach, which shuns civil-strife kind-of-mindsets and the short-sighted temptations of score-settling and whole-sale exclusions, will allow Tunisians to address their country’s pressing priorities.
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.