Tunisia: game of mirrors

Summary: behind Tunisia’s economic problems is the failure of the President and the political elite to use their constitutional powers for a national effort to rebuild the economy.

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2 thoughts on “Tunisia: game of mirrors”

  1. James Spencer raises some important issues in his comments. With regard the role played by the president’s son I would refer him to my articles “The problem of two Tunisias has not gone away” (June 2016) and “Something is rotten in the state of Tunisia” (January 2016). After Si Beji’s party won a plurality of votes in the parliamentary elections just over three years ago, the newly minted president decided a coalition between the party he had founded and Nahda was in the best interests of social peace: not an easy decision but it split Nida Tunes. I cannot repeat everything I say in every article; I have written regularly on Tunisia since January 2011 and the articles need to be seen in a broader context.
    I do not wish to comment on The Guardian articles which I have not read. Fixing deep seated economic problems is however very difficult, especially when turmoil in Libya is costing GDP 2 percentage points of lost growth every year. Mr Spencer quotes the World Bank report of 2014 but omits to add that the same organisation was praising Ben Ali’s economic management till he fled in January 2014: the report is a very rare case of contrition by the World Bank. Whether “the ancien regime is trickling back” (whatever that may mean) one has to remind observers that January 2011 was a revolution “within” not “of” the system. Barring the Ben Ali clan, assets in Tunisia belong to the same people, many of whom are perfectly respectable businessmen, as before.
    24 years of Ben Ali and years of an aged Bourguiba before 1987 have left Tunisia with no serious political class to speak of: the idea that Si Beji is trying “pull a Ben Ali” on the Tunisians is absurd which in no way detracts from criticisms of his rule one may make. I would be happy to send Mr Spencer a copy of the economic piece Afrique Magazine will publish early next month which goes into some detail about the reforms needed to improve the management on the economy, create more jobs and cut corruption.

  2. I’d agree with most of this, although M. Ghilès is slightly unkind when he writes “a rare example of an Islamist party losing at the polls.” The main reason the Islamists rarely lose is that they are rarely allowed to contest, and even more rarely to govern. (When the Islamists are allowed to govern, they usually show themselves to be as venal and nepotistic as other politicians.) The main grouping who rarely lose at polls are the Arab etc secular strongmen / military dictators, who take steps to ensure the “correct” result.
    While mentioning the issue of too-close relations with Ennadha, M. Ghilles did not mention the role of Hafidh Caid Essebsi (the President’s son and heir apparent), “a controversial figure who drove Nidaa Tounes’s internal divisions with his claims to its leadership”. That has ominous echos of the jumlikiyyas against which the Arab Spring rose. Indeed, on Tuesday Guardian had an Op-Ed “Young Tunisians know 2011 changed nothing: the revolution goes on”
    The Tunisian economy is in dire straits. In 2014, the World Bank wrote a revealing report “All in the Family – State Capture in Tunisia” which found “The Ben Ali family’s business interests were significant from a macroeconomic perspective, and especially so in sectors subject to intense entry regulation. Enterprises owned by the Ben Ali family confiscated in the aftermath of the revolution accounted for 5% of all private sector output and appropriated approximately 16% of private sector profits.” That Ben Ali state capture needs to be reformed, not merely the personalities replaced. For many, it appears that much of the ancien regime are trickling back, and aiming to pick up where they left off in 2011. Politically, UGTT had a very cosy relationship with Ben Ali, and – as it stands – UGTT is not necessarily part of the solution, either. Labour regulation in Tunisia is very hide-bound and expensive (hardly an encouragement to FDI), which owes much to UGTT influence.

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