Tunisia government faces credibility challenge

Riot police stand guard in Tunisia
Image caption Until recently public dissent in Tunisia has been kept firmly under control by the state authorities

The Tunisian government presents itself to the outside world as an economic success story, but unemployment and poverty have prompted violent protests.

In a televised speech to the nation on 10 January, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali promised to create 300,000 new jobs.

"We have decided to multiply work opportunities and the creation of sources of revenue in all sectors during 2011 and 2012," he said.

But according to Dr Azzam Mahjoub at Tunis University, such a figure is impossible to achieve.

"Last year 57,000 jobs were created, and the best we could hope for would be 80,000," he says, "It is not possible to suddenly create 150,000 jobs a year for the next two years.

"There would need to be 8% growth to accomplish what the president has promised, whereas in reality the figures are showing a potential growth of only 4.5%."

Lack of credibility

The biggest problem facing the country, maintains Dr Mahjoub, is that the government has lost credibility.

He says that President Ben Ali still has a certain legitimacy but that he must take steps to implement structural reforms.

"There has to be transparency, particularly in the judicial system," Dr Mahjoub says.

"Without an independent judiciary there can be no control over corruption, and until corruption is tackled large parts of resources will be diverted from growth and development," he insists.

He believes there is still room for a smooth transitional process towards a more open society.

To achieve that however, the president has to stop listening to his ministers.

"The ministers don't do their job properly," Dr Mahjoub says, "To maintain a legitimacy with the president they don't tell him the truth."

But with the advent of satellite television, the internet and Facebook, young people are more aware of what is really going on.

"People want to be treated with dignity, they want freedom of information," Dr Mahjoub says.

Spark of protest

It was the death of a young unemployed graduate on 17 December which triggered a country-wide series of protests and clashes with the police.

Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in Sidi Bouzid - 200km (125 miles) south-east of the capital Tunis - when local officials prevented him from selling vegetables on the streets without permission.

"This young man thought there was no future for him or his family," says Abdelwahab Maatar, a solicitor from the coastal city of Sfax, "Everywhere he turned his path was blocked."

The riots were initially against the increasing numbers of unemployed, with the unemployment rate currently standing at around 15%, but rising food prices and frustrations with the ruling elite have since become additional issues.

Schools closed

Following a number of deaths during riots over the weekend, President Ben Ali said in a televised broadcast that: "The events were the work of masked gangs that attacked government buildings and civilians inside their homes in a terrorist act that cannot be overlooked."

The government has now closed all schools and universities indefinitely.

Image caption Agricultural production is insufficient to meet the needs of Tunisia's growing population

The country has one of the most developed education systems in Northern Africa. Education is free and schooling is compulsory between the ages of six and 16.

But growth in the number of schools, students, and teachers has created a serious financial strain, as education has constituted one of the largest shares of the annual national budget.

Because of the difficulties in finding enough job opportunities for qualified people, more emphasis has been placed on technical, vocational, teacher, and agricultural training.

An estimated 55% of the population is under the age of 25.

Social cost

The country has a diverse economy which encompasses agriculture, mining, tourism, and manufacturing sectors.

In the mid-1980s a comprehensive programme was introduced to liberalise the economy, and the government has totally or partially privatised around 160 state-owned enterprises since the privatisation programme was launched in 1987.

Tunisia has a well-developed infrastructure that includes six commercial seaports and seven international airports.

The government still retains control over certain strategic sectors of the economy such as finance, hydrocarbons, aviation, electricity and gas distribution, and water resources, but the private sector is playing an increasingly important role.

But although governmental control of economic affairs has gradually lessened over the past decade, with increasing privatisation, simplification of the tax structure, and a prudent approach to debt, any gains have been mitigated by the slowing of exports.

After an initial flurry of privatisations in the early 1990s, the pace slackened and now seems restricted to small, profitable enterprises such as textile factories.

The program has not been without its social costs, as unemployment and poverty levels have risen.

According to Mr Maatar, the government has never delivered what it promised.

"The government has constantly lied," he says, "The projects and programmes it announced have not been viable."

Dr Mahjoub explains: "Many of the jobs which have been created have been by small enterprises which are more interested in paying people low wages rather than employing qualified people."

Those jobs have tempted people off the land and there is now a shortage of agricultural workers.

Tourism worries

There is growing concern that the social unrest could deter tourists.

Tourism is a major source of foreign exchange, representing about 12% of hard currency receipts, as well as being an important sector for employment, with more than 350,000 people directly and indirectly involved.

Apart from seaside and package tourism, new niche holidays being introduced are golf, medical and adventure tourism.

While the influx of tourists represents a boon to the economy, Tunisia's diaspora of an estimated one million, also makes a positive and significant contribution.

"Whatever happens in the coming months, things cannot revert to what they were previously," Dr Azzam Mahjoub maintains.

"We are entering a new era - we cannot go back," he says.

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