Trouble in paradise: How one vendor unmasked the 'economic miracle'

The combination of sun, sea, sand and stability has made Tunisia a popular tourist destination for decades. But will the recent deadly social unrest undermine the so-called “Tunisian economic miracle”?


A tiny wedge of land hugging North Africa’s Mediterranean coast, sun-baked Tunisia is a tourist’s paradise offering sea, sand, ancient Roman ruins, modern spas – or just the simple charm of sipping coffee while gazing at a clear blue sea undisturbed by beggars, touts and the rampant poverty plaguing so many of the world’s idyllic tourist destinations.

But far from the all-inclusive resorts of Hammamet, Sousse or Jerba – where most of the 7 million-odd tourists who visit Tunisia each year gather – trouble has been brewing in this North African paradise.

It all started on Dec. 17, when a street vendor in the southern Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire after police confiscated his produce because he did not have a permit.

The incident sparked protests across Tunisia – a rare occurrence in the tightly controlled Arab nation – and as security forces reacted to the unexpected events, the death toll from clashes between police and protesters began to mount.

Tunisian officials say 14 people were killed over the weekend while trade unions and opposition groups put the death toll over the past three days at more than 50.

Ever since Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956, the Muslim-majority nation has been ruled by authoritarian presidents who placed an emphasis on economic and social development – particularly education and women’s rights – but tolerated virtually no political opposition.

The current president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, is Tunisia’s second president since it gained independence. He has governed unopposed for the past 23 years, with elections routinely resulting in landslide victories for the ruling RDC (Democratic Constitutional Rally) party.

While the country’s eastern and western neighbours – Libya and Algeria – have been rattled by Islamism, brutal civil wars or paranoid revolutions, Tunisia has been an island of stability in the region.

For many Tunisians, Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule was a price they were willing to pay for stability.

Getting the economic miracle past ‘the Family’

But a street vendor’s self-immolation last month appears to have upset the apple cart.

In southern provincial towns far from the Mediterranean coastal spots where tourists throng, protesters have been demonstrating over high unemployment rates, which the World Bank estimates at just under 15 percent, more than double the 6.4 percent rate for other middle income countries.

While Tunisia’s impressive education system sees around 75,000 students graduate every year, the World Bank estimates that 46 percent of educated youths are still unemployed a year-and-a-half after graduating.

“About 15 years ago, Tunisia saw the emergence of a middle class through education, there was some social mobility,” said Lahcen Achy, an economist at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “But for the past ten years, the beneficiaries of higher education can no longer break into the workforce. Social mobility no longer works. In the old days, there were few opportunities, today there are none.”

According to Achy, most of the beneficiaries of the “Tunisian economic miracle” have been limited to Ben Ali’s close circle, including First Lady Leila Ben Ali’s influential Trabelsi clan.

US diplomatic cables leaked to the whistleblower WikiLeaks site noted that Tunisians obliquely refer to Ben Ali’s wealthy cronies and clansmen as “the Family” and added that while some Tunisians believe the president is being used by the much-derided Trabelsi clan, “it is hard to believe Ben Ali is not aware, at least generally, of the growing corruption problem”.

Low-skilled jobs for an educated populace

In an op-ed column for The Los Angeles Times, Achy noted that one of the reasons for the high jobless rate among educated youth is that Tunisia has based its growth strategy on low-skill sectors that depend on cheap labor – such as textiles and tourism.

While tourism accounted for 370,000 jobs and 7 percent of GDP in 2009 in this country of around 10 million people, experts such as Larbi Sadiki, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at Britain’s University of Exeter, note that tourism today is only partly Tunisian-owned.

In an interview with the Voice of America, Sadiki pointed that the bulk of the profits from tourism do not stay in Tunisia. “They create some employment – there’s lots of cheap labour, but there is not actually reinvestment of the proceeds from tourism into Tunisia to create more jobs for the youth,” said Sadiki.

Nearly a month after the violent protests first broke, the tourism industry appears to be unaffected by the recent social unrest – so far.

“We’re not seeing any cancellations, it hasn’t affected us at all,” said Christophe Bazille, marketing manager for hotels.com, a Web site that offers hotel bookings in more than 60 countries. “This is a very low season for tourism in Tunisia. The high season is from July 1 to the end of August. But we have seen no decrease in sales for business travellers, for instance. We haven’t seen any cancellations for rooms so I would say this is not affecting us at all.”

Achy however believes that if the social upheaval continues, Tunisia’s tourism industry will be hit in the long term. "We’ve seen a decline in tourism in all countries where there were violent events,” said Achy. “It happened after the 2003 attacks (in Casablanca) in Morocco or the terrorist attacks in Egypt,” he said, referring to the 1997 attack at the Hatsheput temple in Luxor, which seriously affected the Egyptian tourism industry.

So many new jobs, so little time…

While the recent unrest has been limited to southern provincial towns, leaving the capital of Tunis and other resort towns largely unaffected, there were reports of rioting on Monday in Bizerte, a popular tourist destination during the summer high season.

Analysts believe that if the unrest were to spread to Tunis and other resort areas, the government would impose a complete crackdown.

Indeed hours after students demonstrated at a campus in Tunis on Monday, the government announced an indefinite closure of all schools and universities.

For the moment though, Ben Ali appears to be listening to his disgruntled countrymen.

In a nationally televised speech on Monday – his second since the recent violence broke out – Ben Ali promised to create 300,000 new jobs before the end of 2012.

But Achy is sceptical about the Tunisian president’s latest promise. "In recent years, Tunisia has created an average of 75,000 jobs per year with a growth rate of 5 percent,” he said. “But in 2011, the growth rate is forecast to be around 3.8 percent and less than that in 2012. That would mean creating 150,000 jobs per year. I don’t see which sectors could absorb as many jobs.”



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