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The seven-year itch : Tunisia needs help if it is to remain a model for the Arab world

Many Tunisians appear to be losing faith in democracy

“BREAD, freedom, dignity.” These were the demands of Tunisian protesters who threw off autocracy and sparked the Arab spring seven years ago this month. Tunisians now have more freedom and some dignity. But bread is scarcer than ever. GDP per person has barely budged since the revolution. That is why Tunisia has once again been mired in protests, this time over higher taxes, lower subsidies and the lack of jobs.

Nine governments in seven years have failed to revive the economy (see article). Tunisians are losing faith in democracy. Some even yearn for the return of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the despot whom they tossed out in 2011. According to today’s rose-tinted nostalgia, he at least ensured that Tunisians had work. In fact, Mr Ben Ali left Tunisians feeling much as they do today: as if they have no future. He also tortured dissidents, oppressed workers and plundered the public coffers.

 The best hope for Tunisia is still democracy. But for democracy to arrive, the government needs to put bread on the table—by beginning to fix Tunisia’s economy.

There is much to do. The country is still haunted by the abuses of Mr Ben Ali and his cronies, who drove away foreign investors. In recent years a spate of terrorist attacks has scared off sun-loving tourists. At the first hint of cuts to the public sector, the country’s powerful labour unions call people into the streets or cripple the country with strikes. Repairing the economy will take time—and cause pain. But just when patience is needed, mob rule has become the norm.

The government’s first task is macroeconomic stability. Youssef Chahed, the prime minister, deserves credit for sticking to his guns over the tax rises and subsidy cuts that led to the recent protests. (He had a nudge from the IMF, which has agreed to lend Tunisia €2.4bn, or $2.9bn.) Even so, the government, an unruly alliance of nationalists and Islamists, has only haltingly worked to bring down the budget deficit, which was 6% of GDP last year, and to hold down public debt.

No pain, no gain

Mr Chahed must also do more to disentangle the state from the economy. Some 20% of workers have jobs in the public sector; their wages consume almost 14% of GDP, among the highest proportions in the world. Yet firms run by the government are stonkingly inefficient. The state oil company hired 14% more workers over the past decade—during which time production volumes fell by 29%. Poorly run companies stumble on because competitors face steep barriers to entry in most sectors of the economy. Revenues from the sale of oil, gas and phosphate are not invested in infrastructure that might encourage enterprise, especially in the neglected hinterland, where the commodities are extracted.

Rich countries could do more to help keep Tunisia on track. Yet President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would cut bilateral aid to the country by two-thirds. France has given relatively little to its former colony. More important, America and Europe could open their markets to more Tunisian goods. In 2016 the European Union raised quotas for Tunisian olive oil, a significant export, for two years. Such deals could be extended, and more thrashed out—on Tunisian dates, vegetables, clothes and machinery.

But the world can do only so much. The burden ultimately falls on Tunisia’s leaders to mend the economy and make the case for democracy. Their caution is prolonging the pain of reform. Tunisians acted boldly in choosing democracy. They must be just as bold in pursuing prosperity.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “The seven-year itch”
 The Economist

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