First Published: 2018-03-13

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.
Middle East Online

By Lamine Ghanmi - TUNIS

Neji Jalloul, director-general of the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies.

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.

Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.


Saudi to carry out nuclear power deal with or without US

Egyptians prepare to vote with Sisi reelection guaranteed

Israel ministers welcome US appointment of 'friend' Bolton

Iran slams US sanctions over hacking scheme

Exiled Syrian doctors treat refugees in Turkey

Policeman dead in bombing in Alexandria

Syria rebels prepare to quit penultimate pocket of Ghouta

Syrians in Manbij fear Turkey, bet on US

Mother Courage: Iraqi widow who saved recruits from slaughter

Quick victory unlikely in Egypt assault on IS

Sisi, Egypt's undisputed leader and 'father figure'

PKK to quit northwest Iraq after Turkish threat

Iraqi asylum seeker gets life sentence for London bombing

UK says Israeli sentencing of Palestinian teenage girl "emblematic"

Sarkozy vows to clear name in Libya probe

Syria announces second evacuation deal for rebel-held Eastern Ghouta.

Three dead after suspected IS gunman takes hostages in France

170,000 flee violence in Syria's Afrin

Norway proposes bill to ban full-face veils in education

Turkey says EU statements on Cyprus 'unacceptable'

Air strikes hit Ghouta despite rebel ceasefire effort

US approves $1 billion in Saudi defence contracts

In world first, flight to Israel crosses Saudi airspace

Saudi, US must pursue 'urgent efforts' for Yemen peace: Mattis

US, Jordan launch new counterterrorism training centre

Turkey’s largest media group to be sold to Erdogan ally

Rebels evacuate Syria's Eastern Ghouta

Two Hamas security force members killed in raid on bomb suspect

Turkey gives watchdog power to block internet broadcasts

EU leaders to condemn Turkey’s ‘illegal’ actions in Mediterranean

Sarkozy says life ‘living hell’ since corruption allegations

Hezbollah leader says debt threatens Lebanon disaster

Ahed Tamimi reaches plea deal for eight months in jail

UN launching final push to salvage Libya political agreement

Conditions for displaced from Syria's Ghouta 'tragic': UN

Sisi urges Egyptians to vote, denies excluding rivals

Rights Watch says Libya not ready for elections

Saudis revamp school curriculum to combat Muslim Brotherhood

American mother trapped in Syria’s Ghouta calls out Trump

Syria workers say French firm abandoned them to jihadists

Grim Nowruz for Kurds fleeing Afrin

Sarkozy back in custody for second day of questioning

'Saudization' taking its toll on salesmen

Syrian rebels reach evacuation deal in Eastern Ghouta town

Israel confirms it hit suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007