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Seeing the ‘political crisis’ behind Tunisia’s economic morass

Despite abundant natural resources, Tunisia has recorded lower GDP growth, higher unemployment and increasing foreign debt since 2011.

While Tunisia has overcome the threat posed by jihadists to its nascent democracy, it remains embroiled in economic and social crises because of the failure of political elites to harness the country’s potential, said the head of the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies (ITES), a think-tank affiliated with the Tunisian presidency.

“Tunisia has defeated terrorism. The threat from jihadists is now behind us. Tunis is as safe as Paris or other European capitals,” ITES Director-General Neji Jalloul told The Arab Weekly in an interview.

Jalloul, 60, a former minister of education, is a historian by training and has a doctorate in archaeology from Paris-Sorbonne University.

Jalloul said he is confident that Tunisia’s security forces can deal with the jihadist threat. “Tunisia’s National Guard forces, who are at the forefront of the fight against jihadists, have become a world reference in the successful fight against jihadists. Experts and security officials from several foreign countries are seeking to learn from them and from their experience,” he said.

ITES, founded in 1993, has conducted studies on the main issues of concern to Tunisia and its future, including jihadist terrorism.

“[The Islamic State (ISIS)] had been crushed first in Tunisia before it was defeated in Iraq and Syria. Its defeat in Ben Guerdane preceded its defeat in Iraq and Syria,” Jalloul said.

He was referring to a watershed battle waged by Tunisian soldiers and security forces — helped by local civilians — in March 2016, who defeated scores of suspected ISIS members who crossed the Libyan border and attempted to seize control of Ben Guerdane by storming a National Guard post and military barracks.

Tunisia has been free of serious terrorist incidents since then and foreign tourists have returned to the country in increasing numbers since early 2017, a sign of restored confidence in the security climate.

For years after the 2011 uprising that toppled former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, groups affiliated with ISIS and al-Qaeda made Tunisia a prime target in the Maghreb. Their activities intensified after presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014.

ISIS-affiliated terrorists killed more than 60 foreign tourists in two attacks in 2015, one at a museum in Tunis and the other at a beach resort in Sousse.

Tunisian forces cooperate closely with NATO as well as European and US military and intelligence services.

Tunisia’s main challenge is now economic. Since 2011, the small North African country’s indicators have shown lower GDP growth, higher unemployment and increasing foreign debt. Corruption increased with the expansion of the informal economy. Political instability, with eight successive governments, has not helped the situation.

“Tunisia’s economic crisis is the result of a political crisis. There is a breakdown of the political class. There is a divorce between the political class and what the country needs in terms of forging a national project, a project for its society,” Jalloul said.

However, Tunisia has “huge human resources, competencies and skills in all fields,” he added.

“The political landscape has turned (into) an arena in which each party is accusing the other. As a result, the elites with knowledge, skills and expertise are deserting the political parties because of the infighting and the lack of interest in focusing on development projects,” he said.wJalloul argued that Tunisia could resolve its economic and social problems if its political elites forged a “national consensus” to put the country on the path towards a “self-sustainable” development project by relying on natural resources.

Instead, Tunisia remains stuck in economic and social crises because its political elites failed to tap into Tunisia’s great potential, which includes “abundant natural resources,” he said.

Such resources are not limited to oil and gas, he pointed out, adding: “Tunisia has huge resources in salt, silica sand, marble (and) natural gypsum.”

Jalloul said the country “can build diversified industries from these resources and create a huge number of jobs.”

Large solar energy farms could provide cheap energy and resolve Tunisia’s water problems to expand agricultural irrigation, he said.

“From the sea, Tunisia can start various businesses of pharmaceutical, cosmetic and food products. Instead of tapping (into) such wealth we are turning our back to the sea,” he pointed out.

He said Tunisia could use its marble, natural gypsum and phosphates to develop local industries that create jobs and aid neglected regions.

Economic instability and social tensions have persisted, particularly along the country’s fragile borders, with smuggling and contraband often a main source of revenue. Smuggling along the country’s Algerian border to the west and Libyan border to the south poses significant challenges to Tunisia’s security and social stability.

Recurrent protests have forced the government to be in catch-up mode, trying to appease the restive population in affected regions with temporary job schemes and social assistance fixes.

“People in these regions where the present time is literally suspended in the past do not need palliative economic measures,” said Jalloul.

“Why isn’t there a marble industry in Thala? Why isn’t there a phosphate-based industry in Gafsa? Why isn’t there a gypsum-derived industry in Tataouine?” asked Jalloul, referring to towns in western and southern Tunisia shaken by social unrest.

“What people in these areas demand and need is to be able to play a role in economic and social development and in the creation of wealth,” he said.

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