Demands of restive population to challenge Tunisia’s next government

Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli struggles to cobble together a cohesive cabinet that can tackle Tunisia’s challenges head-on.
Sunday 08/12/2019
Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli at his office in Tunis. (DPA)
Socio-economics first. Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli at his office in Tunis. (DPA)

TUNIS  - Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli is expected to soon announce a new coalition government but he faces an uphill battle to address the frustrations of an increasingly restive population and halt one of the country’s worst economic downturns.

“(Tunisia’s) economic situation will be so difficult in 2020 and 2021 that the government must be careful not to waste valuable time,” said Tony Verheijen, the World Bank’s representative in Tunis.

Economists painted a grim picture, one that has deteriorated since 2011 while the Islamist Ennahda Movement ruled as part of coalition governments.

Jemli, 61, an agriculture expert by training, was a junior minister in an Ennahda-led coalition government in 2012-13. He was designated to lead the government after Ennahda finished first in parliamentary elections, securing 52 seats in the 217-member parliament.

Jemli, criticised by some as “unqualified” to lead amid the deepening crisis, will face a tough test to cobble together a government that can tackle Tunisia’s challenges.

“As for the competence, I estimate that the country is saturated with economic competences more recognised than Habib Jemli,” said Zied Laadhari, who resigned as deputy chief of Ennahda and as a government minister in protest of Jemli’s nomination.

“The choice of Jemli to lead the next government was not sound based on considerations of political independence and competence.”

“I feel we are repeating the same mistakes of the past when I believe the next government could be the government of the last chance for the country,” he added.

A poll by Emrhod Consulting, released December 4, indicated that 89.6% of Tunisian respondents said they were disillusioned about their economic situation.

“If this crisis is not overcome as soon as possible by an awareness of the country’s political and economic elites, the Tunisian democratic experience will fail,” said Global Prospect Intelligence Director Mehdi Taje.

“In fact, the political crisis combined with an unprecedented economic and social crisis in the history of Tunisia is exacerbating social tensions in the context of a sharp purchasing power decline, worsening poverty and massive unemployment.”

Tunisia’s economy has become so fragile that it is struggling even to absorb the soft loans it received from the World Bank.

“We put at the disposal of the government $4.6 billion since 2011. It is exceptional because we considered Tunisia and its successful democratic transformation as an asset for the Middle East and North Africa region,” said Verheijen. “We are well aware that the success of a democratic political transition needs, as well, success in the economic transition.”

Tunisia, however, has been unable to translate the aid into development projects and has resorted to further borrowing.

Before 2011, Tunisia’s government used most borrowing to increase its capital account potential and invest in infrastructure and local development, helping it reach an average annual GDP growth of 5%.

After 2011, borrowing went largely to fund government salaries and subsidies and Tunisia’s debt as a proportion of its GDP widened from 35% in 2010 to an estimated 80% this year. It is projected to reach 89% next year, official figures indicate.

“The indebtedness stems from our deficit,” said Taoufik Rajhi, the minister in charge of major reforms. “Our spending goes mainly to pay public service salaries and subsidies, such as electricity, gas, petroleum products, water, sugar, coffee, music festivals and television programmes.”

Experts said the next government must develop a programme to quickly alleviate poverty and social emergencies to give hope to the most fragile segments of the population who have started taking to the streets to vent their frustration.

The government’s other priorities are returning Tunisia’s phosphates production to pre-2011 levels, addressing money-losing state companies to cut the budget deficit, improving public services and bolstering the value of the dinar to ward off inflation and curb the widening trade deficit, experts said.

The state-owned Gafsa Phosphates Company contributed 10% of Tunisia’s total sales abroad before 2011. That has since dropped to 4%. The company, located in the poor, restive Gafsa region, increased its workforce from 21,000 to 30,000 in response to protests over unemployment.

Tunisia’s latest figures state that phosphates output was 900,000 tonnes in the first quarter of this year, versus 400,000 tonnes during the same period of 2018. This is compared with an average of 2 million tonnes per quarter before 2011.

“Half of the 119 state-owned companies, including water and power utilities and transport concerns, are threatened with demise and extinction if there are no rescue programmes for them before the end of 2020,” said Faisal Derbal, the government’s top economic adviser.

The government needs to reach an agreement with the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union, whose leaders are at loggerheads with Ennahda and its more radical Islamist ally El Karama Coalition. Senior officials of the coalition have alleged the union leadership “is riddled with corruption.”