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Tunisian Envoy Speaks on Enduring Economic and Social Challenges

By Nicole Schaller 

Protests broke out early this year in Tunisia in response to new austerity measures introduced by the government amid the country’s drawn-out economic crisis. While Tunisia is the only country to have successfully emerged from the turmoil of the Arab Spring with a democratic government, the economic grievances that fueled the so-called Jasmine Revolution seven years ago still fester today.

A Feb. 9 luncheon spotlighted Tunisia’s progress and growing pains at the DACOR Bacon House in D.C. hosted by the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) and Diplomatic and Consular Officers Retired group.

Ambassador of Tunisia Fayçal Gouia talked about the challenges that remain after a young street vendor, who had his fruit cart confiscated by police, set himself ablaze on Dec. 17, 2010. The defiant act sparked massive anti-government protests that just a few weeks later toppled longtime Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled after 23 years in power, and triggered similar protests throughout the Arab world.

Tunisia’s beach resorts have long been a popular tourist destination, but a spate of terrorist attacks in 2015 hurt the industry. (Photo: Pixabay / Alex Sky) 

“Since that day … Tunisians are enjoying liberty and freedom and it is rewarding for Tunisians,” said Gouia. “So much was done on the protocol side — new elections, new constitution, many political institutions were put in place, but also [we have] so many challenges to face on the social and economic sides.”

The World Bank projects Tunisia’s economy will grow by 2.3 percent in 2017, with continued growth in the next two years thanks to structural reforms and greater social stability. But these economic gains have not been enough to put a dent in Tunisia’s high unemployment rate of 15.6 percent, with the youth unemployment rate estimated to be as high 35 percent. Even for those with jobs, wages can average as low as $7 to $10 a day.

Tunisia’s economic struggles have been exacerbated by austerity measures demanded by the IMF as part of a $2.8 billion loan program contingent on the government enacting social and economic reforms. The measures have hiked taxes and the cost of gas. The Tunisian government is also trying to cut a public wage bill, which is among the world’s highest, further heightening tensions.

Protests and clashes erupted in January and have continued into February. Hundreds of young unemployed men have been blocking the entrance of the state-run Gafsa Phosphate (CPG) mine, for instance, halting phosphate exports. With phosphate being one of Tunisia’s main exports, the blockades are creating even more economic uncertainty.

Last year, CPG produced 4.15 million tons of phosphate and employs 30,000 Tunisians. Similarly, a strike in the Tunisian city of Redeyef was recently organized by labor unions demanding more employment opportunities.

Moreover, a spate of terrorist attacks left the country’s all-important tourism sector reeling. In March 2015, two gunmen killed 22 people, mostly European tourists, in an attack on the Bardo Museum, and in June of that same year, 38 tourists on the beaches of Sousse were killed by an armed terrorist. Both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State. Tunisia also geographically borders war-torn Libya, which has also contributed to tourists staying away.

Trees and elegant shops line one of the main boulevards in the Tunisian capital of Tunis. Outside of the capital, however, many people in poorer, rural areas complain of a lack of jobs. (Photo: Pixabay) 

Terrorism is also a major concern given that Tunisia had more people per-capita join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq than any other nation. However, Gouia pointed out that although the numbers are still high, Tunisia now ranks in fourth place among countries whose citizens have left to fight for the Islamic State.

“One person can make damage to a whole country or region, so talking about numbers is not the most important,” Gouia said. “Talking about a strategy, a global strategy, to fight against these terrorists or return [them] to their country of origin should be most important. We should all get together, cooperate and collaborate to find the best ways to avoid problems and the threat of terrorists.”

Gouia noted that Tunisia has put in place rehabilitation programs to de-radicalize Tunisian men and women who were recruited by terrorist groups.

Despite many political and economic reforms since the Arab Spring, Tunisia still suffers from high unemployment, and even for those with jobs, wages can be as low as $7 to $10 a days. (Photo: Pixabay) 

“[Rehabilitation programs] are a big effort not just for Tunisia, but internationally,” said Gouia. “And we are cooperating with many organizations internationally and our partners in the U.S. and Europe in order to tackle this problem more effectively.”

Gouia added that there was 36 percent increase in tourists coming to Tunisia in 2017, which saw about 7 million visitors, and that this year’s figures are expected to return to the levels they were before the 2011 revolution.

Overall, Gouia said he was optimistic about the future of Tunisia’s ability to recover from its economic woes, despite the recent demonstrations.

“The economy has suffered a lot from the situation within the country, but also has suffered from the situation within the region,” he said. “But now I can say the situation is improving. We need to do better, especially in creating jobs for young people who are suffering from unemployment … but I am sure once the economy is recovering, this rate will quickly drop.”

Nicole Schaller is an editorial intern at The Washington Diplomat.



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