x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Ben Ali's legacy will challenge any new government

In Kasbah Square in Tunis, volunteers are taking down tents and sweeping up.

In Kasbah Square in Tunis, volunteers are taking down tents and sweeping up.

It is almost two months since Zine el Abidine Ben Ali resigned as president and fled the country after a wave of civil unrest.

But only in the past few days have the people accomplished their main goal: getting rid of all vestiges of the regime.

With the dissolution of Tunisia's "unity government" and the announcement of elections slated for July 24, people came to the square in the rain on Friday mainly to celebrate, draped in Tunisian flags, shouting from the tops of buses, organising political gatherings, marching and singing.

Men and women were crying tears of joy at the end of a decades-long political and economic nightmare.

"We won the battle after more than 20 years," said one member of the Al Nahda party, a Muslim group that was banned under Mr Ben Ali.

Yet as Tunisians wake to a new era of political consciousness and freedom, the country's new leadership will inherit an economy shot through with social dislocations and still burdened by Mr Ben Ali's heavy hand. He and his family controlled large parts of economic activity in Tunisia, with ownership stakes in some of its biggest banks, hotels, airlines, radio stations and construction companies.

The family of his wife, Leila Trabelsi, also held sway over many of the country's most critical industries. Mourad Trabelsi, her brother, had a monopoly on Tunisian tuna exports, among other things.

A major concern in the new government's bid to right the economy will be untangling the Ben Ali family's financial web.

That could mean many of the family's assets become government assets, or the stakes could be nationalised and sold to private investors.

The status of those assets remains clouded but ridding the political system of its kleptocratic legacy will undoubtedly be a high priority for any new government.

Bigger questions linger, however, over economic policies needed to correct a combination of high unemployment and poor living standards among a population that is predominantly young.

Tunisia's median age is about 29, according to the CIA World Factbook, meaning half the population is younger.

Unemployment is high. About 14.2 per cent of Tunisians were jobless in 2005, according to official statistics, but outside analysts estimate the rate is much higher.

While mining and textiles industries employ thousands of people, Tunisians on the whole are well educated, making them unsuited to unskilled jobs. And with technological advances in phosphate mining and textile production, even unskilled work is disappearing.

In recent years, Mr Ben Ali presided over a wave of growth in Tunisia and was trying - or so it seemed to the outside world - to turn the economy into an open and modern one. It grew by more than 4 per cent per year between 2003 and 2008.

But that expansion did not translate into rising living standards, a disconnect that played a role in prompting the recent upheaval and which is set to be a major challenge for a new government.

* Asa Fitch