Political transitions are difficult, but economic transitions are even harder. Ten years after the uprisings that ousted long-established political regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, the social grievances and structural economic weaknesses that sparked the protests all over the region remain largely unaddressed. With its sluggish growth and high unemployment, Tunisia is no exception.
On December 17th, 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, a young fruit-seller from Sidi Bou Zid, set himself on fire in protest against the confiscation of his wheelbarrow. His desperate act soon became a symbol for the violent oppression of a corrupt, autocratic regime, as well as of the dire socio-economic conditions prevalent in Tunisia, particularly in the rural areas and in the urban peripheries. Places like Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine, known as the “cradles” of the thawrat al-karama (the Dignity Revolution) were widely recognised as the most marginalised regions of the country. The protests of 2010-2011 exposed the real state of the Tunisian economy, which – as described by the scholar Béatrice Hibou in “The Force of Obedience” (“La Force de l’Obéissance, 2006) – had been obscured by a discourse of solid growth and macroeconomic stability, also shared by the multilateral organizations in many of their papers and reports.
It is challenging to present an accurate picture of the Tunisian socio-economic situation pre-thawra based on the data available. Still, there is general agreement among scholars and observers on the simmering social discontent across the country in the years preceding 2010. The most significant examples are the protests in the mining basin of Gafsa in 2008, where people took to the streets to voice their disagreement with the hiring practices of the Compagnie des Phosphates de Gafsa (CFG), but also against the long-standing model of resource extraction and marginalisation of peripheral communities by the Tunisian state and its élites. Widespread poverty, structural unemployment and underemployment and blatant regional disparities between the interior of the country and the coastal areas were brought to the fore by the uprisings of 2010-2011 to become part of the political and economic agenda of Tunisia’s new course.
An economy cannot be transformed or rebuilt in ten years and the challenges are huge: generating more and better job opportunities for its (young) labour force, laying the foundations for sustained and inclusive regional development, and addressing the demands for dignity and social justice that drove the wave of protests of 2010-2011. It must also be said that Tunisia is a relatively small country, with a population of about 11.7 million people, and considerably dependent on foreign demand and foreign capital. Tourism is traditionally seen as a key sector for the Tunisian economy, and it has been significantly affected in the aftermath of the thawra, as well as following the terrorist attacks of 2015 at the Bardo museum and in Port el-Kantaoui and, most recently, by the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s export-driven economy (exports account on average for 50% of national GDP) is deeply intertwined with FDI attracted by the offshore system (as per the loi 72 of November 1972), which grants a number of fiscal advantages to exporting firms, and by the low cost of labour.
This model - characterised by the dominant role of the domestic elites of the littoral areas – poses worrying problems such as low productivity and limited capacity for innovation, restraining the job creation potential of the country’s productive structure. Moreover, it has failed to redistribute resources to the many peripheral areas of the country in terms of both wages and investments. Along with the already mentioned case of the revolts in the Gafsa basin, pertinent examples to cite refer to the sit-in of Kasserine in 2016 and the one in Al-Kamour, in the Southern governorate of Tataouine. The former, like Gafsa in 2008, showed that public employment was the only viable option in a context of structural marginalisation and dispossession. The latter started to demand a fair redistribution of resources in 2017 - including creation of jobs and development projects – to the companies extracting oil in the area and to the government; an agreement with the protesters was found only in November 2020.
In the midst of a political transition and with the post-thawra political forces occupied with their struggles for power, the economic agenda of the “new” Tunisia amounts to the recycling of decades-old policies put forward by the eleven governments of the past ten years. Most political organizations - with the exception of the radical left-wing parties and many grassroots movements – have basically limited their discourse to the importance of encouraging private sector development and attracting FDI but neglected any debate about the structural transformation of the Tunisian economy towards a more inclusive and just system. Anti-corruption resolutions have become an old refrain that overshadow the urgent need to contain and counteract the rent-seeking and rent-extraction practices evident among the country’s capital class and pave the way for a different development pattern characterised by higher productivity.
The international community through development aid/cooperation has also contributed to steering Tunisia’s economic agenda towards a set of policies that run the risk of exacerbating the socio-economic problems and disparities in the country. The free-trade agreement with the European Union – ALECA, currently still under negotiation – has been staunchly opposed by several Tunisian civil society organizations. The arrangement is very likely to disproportionately benefit EU producers and companies, which will gain further market share in Tunisia without any obligation in terms of redistribution. The IMF’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF, 3 billion euros) imposed several draconian and unpopular measures that restricted the Tunisian government’s room for manoeuvring of the and – following the depreciation of the Tunisian dinar in 2017 and the consequent inflation spike – which placed a huge burden on the most vulnerable sections of society while failing to deliver any tangible gain in terms of (productive) investments or export-driven growth. In parallel, the Tunisian government has become increasingly indebted to foreign creditors (foreign debt represents approximately two thirds of public debt in 2020, according to the Tunisian Ministry of Finance), which raises many questions about debt servicing, its sustainability and the public resources that will be diverted to this rather than to more productive purposes or to the welfare system.
Tunisia’s socio-economic fabric has proven impossible to mend in ten years, and the country has sadly lost a decade of development due to general institutional lack of capacity – both domestic and international – to set different objectives and design new solutions. A collective endeavour to rethink the paradigm is more necessary than ever to avoid wider disparities/inequalities and deeper dualism in the Tunisian economy. The many uprisings and demonstrations that have punctuated the past decade have come to be seen as a threat to security and social order and as a nuisance for growth; however, one might argue that they should instead be considered as a telling sign that inclusiveness and social justice are not gracious gifts, but core elements of a solid development model.