"Tunisia: Confronting Social and Economic Challenges", crisisgroup

Eighteen months after initiating the Arab spring, Tunisia can still boast of an ongoing and successful transition. But formidable social and economic challenges threaten to halt progress. William Lawrence, Crisis Group's North Africa Project Director, speaks about how those challenges have manifested on the ground. 4:30 

Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I am Ben Dalton, Communications and IT Officer in Washington, DC. Eighteen months after initiating the Arab Spring, Tunisia can still boast of an ongoing and successful transition. The former regime, which had symbolised corruption and social injustice, is gone, and democratic gains are palpable. Yet formidable social and economic challenges threaten to halt progress. 

I spoke with William Lawrence, Crisis Group’s North Africa Project Director, about how those challenges have manifested on the ground. 

William, what would you say are the main challenges faced by Tunisia since the revolution over 18 months ago?

The causes of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, like the causes of the Arab Spring in most of the Arab Spring countries, were more economic than political. But the responses of the national governments and international community have been more political than economic. The economic situation in Tunisia has deteriorated significantly since the Arab Spring began. So there are a number of things that need to be addressed. 

Certainly the unemployment of university graduates is a major issue and they played a major role in the Tunisian Arab Spring. There are regional inequalities, which need to be addressed, coast versus interior. And certainly the corruption levels in Tunisia have not gotten significantly better. Even though, with the departure of the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families, two families are no longer controlling most of Tunisian private sector, but others have stepped into those roles and we’re not sure how uncorrupt they are. 

How would you say that these problems have manifested themselves actually on the street?

There are a lot of different types of manifestations. Certainly, the unemployed university graduates have been very active in street action, whether it was setting up a roadblock or attacking a local government building. Certainly, the labor unions have been very active. There has been clan violence in the mining area where different families fought each other over access to jobs. There have been thousands of labor action strikes. There is even competition among mafia-esque forces or criminal forces over control of local markets and smuggling routes. So there is a wide variety of social and economic contestation.

How is the government tackling these problems, or what has it done so far?

So far, it has deployed a lot of stopgap measures. It has created jobs for about 200,000 university graduates, which is a step in the right direction but doesn’t solve the problem. It’s created tens of thousands of public work jobs, for which people earn maybe 100 euros a month--another stopgap effort. They’ve also maintained subsidies on certain staples like semolina, pasta, and eggs, and milk, and sugar, oil and gas at about 50 percent of their cost. But none of these are the types of sustainable, durable solutions that will help Tunisia advance economically and deal with the fundamental causes of the Arab Spring.

So what steps can be taken to re-establish some degree of socio-economic stability?

Most Tunisians work in the informal sector, not in the formal sector. So the most important thing will be to move Tunisians from informal sector activities, which are not tax-paying and not formally engaged in the economy, to the formal economy where they will be paying taxes and contributing to the development of the Tunisian state and Tunisian society. So instead of viewing the informal sector as smuggling and contraband, it should be seen as the primary motor of economic growth for Tunisians. 

So this means moving Tunisian informal sector workers gradually to the formal sector through supporting entrepreneurial development and the development of small and medium enterprises, including in the services. In addition, there needs to be implementation of new labor standards and support for the unions, who played a major role in the Arab Spring in Tunisia. There also needs to be continuing reform in the justice system and the corruption needs to be addressed. And certainly, there needs to be regional development projects in the more unfavored areas of Tunisia, and political and economic decentralisation. 

Edited for print.