x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Pre-revolution Tunisians were growing gloomier, poll shows

Despite growing economy, in last years of Ben Ali, Tunisian middle class saw their living standards fall and public services deteriorate while corruption was seen to rise, Gallup report says.

RABAT // Twelve years ago Samia Hassaini, a mother of two in the Tunisian city of Grombalia, quit her job as a high school teacher in disgust at what she describes as a state education system going down the drain.

"Schools have degraded badly since the time of Bourguiba," Mrs Hassaini said, referring to Tunisia's first president, sidelined in 1987 by his now-ousted successor, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Mrs Hassaini's early pessimism puts her at the vanguard of Tunisians who grew increasingly unhappy with their country in the year preceding January's revolution, according to a report released today by the Abu Dhabi branch of the US-based polling agency, Gallup.

Based on interviews of about 1,000 Tunisian adults in 2009 and 2010, the report indicates that perceptions of public services, corruption and job prospects darkened despite economic growth.

Those findings in turn highlight the role of socio-economic gloom in Mr Ben Ali's removal, which inspired similar revolt across the Arab world. According to the report, just over half of respondents said that Tunisia's economy was doing well. "However, when examining the degree to which Tunisians perceived themselves as personally benefiting from improved economic conditions, recent events fall into context," the report states.

Few - if any - observers expected revolution in Tunisia. Mr Ben Ali kept dissent firmly in check with a vast security apparatus, while the country's large middle class was widely considered too comfortable to revolt.

Tunisia's economy grew steadily during the past decade following liberalising reforms that helped put the country on track for increased access to the European common market.

According to the World Economic Forum's global competitiveness index, Tunisia gained eight points from 2009 to 2010. Per capita GDP rose from US$7,182 (Dh26,380) in 2005 to US$9,489 in 2010, according to International Monetary Fund figures.

Behind the scenes, however, wealth was increasingly concentrated among the country's richest people, said Hosni Nemsia, director of the Institut de Sondage et de Traitement de l'Information Statistique, a private research centre in Tunis, the capital.

Topping the list were Mr Ben Ali, his extended family and their associates. According to US diplomatic cables published last year by Wikileaks, Mr Ben Ali's clan muscled their way into many of Tunisia's major companies in recent years.

"Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage," wrote the then-US ambassador Robert Godec in a June 2008 cable. As early as 2004, a World Bank report said that corruption was costing Tunisia two to three percentage points of economic growth.

Mr Ben Ali's style of cronyism infected Tunisia's business environment, said Slim Zeghal, the chief executive of Altea Packaging, a packing material company in Tunis.

"Above all, it was the predominance of the reigning family," Mr Zeghal said. While his own company was not targeted by Mr Ben Ali's clique, "one felt that success depended not on merit, but on who you knew," he said.

According to the Gallup report, Tunisians' confidence in local entrepreneurship, asset security and the government's willingness to let businesses make money fell by 14, 10 and nine per cent respectively from 2009 to 2010. Meanwhile, living standards and public services were seen to deteriorate, the report said.

As GDP growth pushed up house prices, Tunisians who said they were confident of finding affordable housing fell from 74 per cent in 2009 to 41 per cent in 2010. Satisfaction also declined during the same period for roads, public transport, state health services and public schools.

"Take state education," said Mrs Hassaini, the former high schoolteacher. "Teachers have been badly paid. The result is that they're preoccupied with making ends meet."

According to Mrs Hassaini, many children including her daughters, aged 16 and 17, continue to rely on private tutoring to make up for poor teaching in public school classrooms. Gallup's report portrays "a growing sense of frustration among Tunisians with the challenges they face in reaping the benefits of a country hailed as an example of quick social progress and economic growth in North Africa".

Storm clouds were gathering by 2008, said Mr Nemsia, when protests in the Gafsa mining region over unemployment and alleged corruption met with deadly force.

Last December Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year old vegetable seller who was harassed and whose goods were confiscated by municipality officers, sparked revolution by setting fire to himself in a gesture of desperation.

Today a transitional government is preparing for October elections for a national assembly that will draft a new constitution, and is struggling to repair an economy projected to grow by only one per cent this year.

Ordinary Tunisians such as Mrs Hassaini hope that such steps will help cleanse Tunisian society of the effects of Mr Ben Ali's rule.

"Outwardly, Tunisia was in good shape," she said. "But inside it was rotten."

jthorne@thenational.ae