x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Fix economy in Tunisia, and politics follows

Tunisians have been waiting two years for some progress towards a better life. They're getting impatient, and who can blame them?

Two years on from the departure of Tunisia's president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Tunisians are back on the streets, once again calling for change. Revolution rocked the economy and the government, still in transition, appears to have no real plan for righting it. Jobs are still scarce - although unemployment has dropped slightly from a post-revolution high of 19 per cent to 17 per cent - and clear long-term policies do not yet exist to get Tunisians back to work.

In a sense, Tunisia, of all the Arab Spring countries, should have been the easiest to put back together. It is small and prosperous, has a relatively large middle-class, a well-educated population and clear trade possibilities due to its geographical proximity to Europe. Compared to the challenges faced by Egypt or Yemen, Tunisia should have had a relatively easy ride.

The problem is that the country has needed to accomplish two very difficult things simultaneously. The first is reforming the political landscape, the second is reforming and kick-starting the economy.

On politics, the transitional government, especially Ennahda, the Islamist party that dominates the constituent assembly, has got it mostly right. After their election they moved slowly, unlike Egypt, issuing a draft constitution that the public had months to debate. But precisely because of that deliberate approach, the reform of the economy has stalled. Uncertainty about the country's future has kept investors away. Even domestic investors would rather keep their money abroad than risk an uncertain Tunisia.

The lack of movement on the economy has knock-on effects on politics: because the expectations of Tunisians have not been fulfilled, the door has been left open to more extreme elements. Left-wing unions, right-wing Salafists and remnants of the old regime, have all asserted themselves in the past year, claiming the Islamists and secularists cannot run the country effectively.

Many of these problems might dissipate if people were working. But at present, most wealth and opportunity is disproportionately distributed in the north; in the centre and south, where Tunisia's uprising began, unemployment remains well above 25 per cent. Better distribution of public spending is therefore desperately needed.

The country can grow its way out of its economic malaise, but it needs to convince investors - domestic and foreign - that post-revolution Tunisia is a stable and safe place to do business, where corruption and crony capitalism are woes of the past. On politics, Tunisians can be convinced to be patient. They will be less forgiving on bread and butter issues.