‘Unemployment is now a key priority in Tunisia’
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Tunisia’s revolution was sparked by the desperate act of a jobless man, but a year later unemployment has risen in the country. FRANCE 24 asked Tunisian economist and lawmaker Moncef Cheikh Rouhou to assess the situation.
Nearly a year after former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled by a revolution, discontent is still boiling over in the North African country. A jobless man died on January 10, five days after he set himself on fire in protest outside government offices in the southwest province of Gafsa. It was a reminder of Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide by self-immolation, which launched the Tunisian revolt one year ago and led to the so-called Arab Spring.
The unemployment rate in Tunisia has grown from 14 to 19% over the past year and the country now counts over 800,000 jobless people. The situation is worse in certain regions like Gafsa. FRANCE 24 asked Moncef Cheikh Rouhou, a renowned economist and an opposition member in Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly, to assess the issue of unemployment in his home country.
Unemployment has increased since the revolution. Do you think the authorities have done enough to resolve this important issue?
Moncef Cheikh Rouhou: The fight against unemployment is now a key priority in Tunisia, where some sections of society are desperate. Since the first hours of the revolution and during the last election, this was the number one issue for protesters and voters. However, things can not change overnight. The government has only been in place for two or three weeks, so it is too early to evaluate its work. Let’s remember that legitimacy has returned to Tunisia’s presidency, to its government and its assembly, even if their authority is temporary. All the factors necessary to create jobs and grant subsidies are in place and should give hope to the youth. The success of this government’s policies and actions should only be judged after the limited mandate has ended.
The situation seems especially critical in poor areas such as Gafsa. Why have certain provinces been ignored?
MCR: The situation in Gafsa is unfair. This area produces Tunisia’s gold and its phosphate-rich soil generates huge revenues for the state. Paradoxically, the region has never seen profits return home. Favoritism in the former regime meant jobs in Gafsa were given to political allies at the expense of the local population. Even today, entire families remain unemployed. Many survive on subsistence farming, planting their own vegetables or raising chickens to feed themselves. The state must make a significant effort to more fairly redistribute its wealth. It must concentrate its support in the poorest areas for one or two years, until an economic plan can bear fruit. On a more general level, solutions must urgently be found to accelerate job creation. Effective public-private partnership could help solve the problem of employment at a local level.
According to the Ministry of Economy, the ongoing protests and strikes in Tunisia are causing the country’s economy to slow down. Do you agree with this analysis?
MCR: Since the revolution, people have organised many strikes and sit-ins. This is normal, they were deprived of these rights for sixty years. However, while they should protest and express their dissatisfaction they should also ensure that their company stays in business. When a strike becomes a weapon against the company, but at the expense of employees, then it is criminal.
What other project must the government put in place in order to re-launch the economy?
MCR: The situation is not catastrophic. While Tunisia lost $2 billion in the revolution, or five percent of the nation’s income, our economy is still moving forward and foreign investment has not diminished. The country's current level of debt is 40% of the GDP, which is not excessive compared to other countries like the United States, where debt reached 100% [of GDP]. One of our projects is to earn 2 to 3 points of growth by fighting corruption and bad governance, two evils inherited from the old regime. The second priority is increasing trade with other North African countries, developing economic relations with sub-Saharan countries and, finally, balancing the trade deficit with the European Union. We want to turn Tunisia into an emerging economy by redirecting its key strengths, as well as to encourage the skills and potential of its people.