Libya’s recovery is tantalising for Tunisia
More than five years after the downfall of Tunisian autocratic leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the country is confronted with a number of challenges — political, economic and security. As Tunisians try to steer North Africa’s smallest country through the choppy waters, some of its politicians and entrepreneurs can be forgiven for dreaming of a more stable Libya.
The country’s eastern neighbour is rich in oil and gas and, after the internecine bloodletting of the past five years, is in dire need of being rebuilt. Oil and gas prices may be lower and the flow of exports a quarter of what it was in 2010 before dictator Muammar Qaddafi was toppled in 2011, but Libya’s population is much smaller than Tunisia’s and its wealth much greater.
Libya for decades has been a magnet for Tunisian workers, not least from the poor south and south-west hinterland, for Tunisian entrepreneurs from construction companies to food processing.
Libyans have been welcomed as tourists in Tunisia, never more so than today when Europeans have by and large deserted Tunisian beaches following the 2015 terrorist attacks on the Bardo museum in Tunis and a hotel in Sousse.
Rather than Libya being a magnet, it is the western region of Tripolitania, based round Tripoli, which has, for centuries, looked west. The eastern region of Cyrenaica and Benghazi have, for centuries, looked to Cairo.
Be that as it may, there is little doubt that a Libya where a minimum of political unity held sway, where weapons spoke less loudly and where one currency rather than two had legal tender would offer Tunisia an extra two points of growth. Workers’ remittances and exports from Tunisia would be precious for a country where the rate of growth hovers around 1%, where the rate of unemployment is growing and living standards for many, if not the majority, are declining.
There is, however, something tantalising about the idea of greater stability in Libya. Something that is tantalising causes desire and excitement but is unlikely to provide a way of satisfying that desire.
In the case of Tunisia, dreaming about what a more stable Libya might offer is dangerous because it avoids having to confront the domestic issues that desperately need to be addressed if Tunisia is to grow out of its economic malaise.
Beyond its spillover effects in Tunisia, the reconstruction of Libya would be of enormous benefit to the people of Libya itself. Turning swords into ploughs after five years of violence and trying to become a normal country after decades of Qaddafi’s rule is no easy matter but it is only if and when Libya can find more jobs for its sons and daughters than it can aspire to a more normal and quieter life.
Three factors will decide whether Tunisia can move out of the impasse it finds itself in. The first is whether President Beji Caid Essebsi can find and bring himself to appoint a prime minister who is a real political animal, who has charisma and who dares speak the truth to the Tunisian people.
This is a sine qua non if the authority of the state is to be restored. Failing that the drift that characterises economic and political affairs will end up, sooner or later, in another popular revolt. The new prime minister needs a much smaller government of competent and committed men and women, the exact contrary of the inflated, amorphous body that has passed for a government in the past 18 months.
The second is to make clear to those who have not enjoyed much benefit from economic growth in recent decades that they will be included in future policy decisions. By the same token, the rich must accept a measure of redistribution of wealth. That the banking system so favours certain sectors — hotel owners and those close to the powers that be — explains why credit is unavailable to younger entrepreneurs and people living in the poorer hinterland.
The third is to tell the Tunisian people that blood, sweat and tears may be the only way out of the current situation. Tunisians have been living above their means for a long time but until their political leaders tell them so, they are unlikely to face up to reality.
The tantalising prospect of being able to help reconstruct Libya and all the jobs and contracts for Tunisian companies it might entail must be set in this context. Were it to happen, it would be icing on the cake, a divine surprise that would show Allah has not forgotten the Tunisian people.
But mirages in Libya cannot detract from the simple but — to many among the Tunisian elite — uncomfortable truth that neither Libya nor international aid can, on their own, solve the country’s problems. Faster economic growth will come as a result of painful reform; Tunisia may be the only democracy in the Arab world but it lacks any democratic culture.
The constitution is fine, political parties are many, the words politicians use are fine and dandy but only Tunisia can pull itself up by its bootstraps. Nobody else can, be they from the European Union, the World Bank or even Libya.
Until that uncomfortable truth is spelt out to the Tunisian people by someone they can trust and respect, until a smack of firm but effective government is given, until the trades unions stop outdoing one another in demagogic promises and until the rich suburbs of Tunis, Carthage and La Marsa stop treating their countrymen who live in the hinterland as peasants, this unique attempt at democracy in the Arab world will not grow strong roots and fail to create jobs and hope for the mass of Tunisians.