Tunisia grapples with economic strains

With the election of a constituent assembly scheduled for October, Tunisia is coming to terms with a reality that, in the short term at least, is challenging.

The high expectations for speedy change among hard-pressed families in poorer urban neighbourhoods and villages across the country leave the interim government with little choice but to resort to short-term measures, hoping to keep tensions at manageable levels before the poll, which will be the first since the revolution in January.

The end of the authoritarian regime paved the way for a surge in sit-ins and protests expressing long pent-up grievances. These continue to cause concern among foreign investors as well as local companies, and no immediate solution is in sight to the high levels of youth unemployment that helped spark the revolution.

A recent survey among more than 50 exporting companies that are members of the German-Tunisian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – a sample that includes many textile and electro-mechanical manufacturers – found that their businesses in 2010 had begun to recover from the slowdown caused by the economic downturn in Europe. The respondents were broadly upbeat on prospects, with more than a third saying they planned to increase levels of investment in their Tunisian operations this year.

However, an almost unanimous 92 per cent cited the lack of stability in the country’s politics and labour relations as a negative factor. In the chamber’s previous two annual surveys, carried out under the regime of former president Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, this factor had not been worthy of mention.

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, commentators spoke of the relative homogeneity of Tunisian society, emphasising that it is a country with no gaping economic divides. This assumption is being put to the test as months pass and the rural poor particularly continue to mobilise to keep their grievances on the national agenda.

In July, there were in total 184 protest roadblocks across Tunisia, up from 103 in June, officials say. There were 156 protests blocking access to industrial sites, including oil company operations, up from 78 in June.

Common grievances expressed in rural protests are: lack of jobs; lack of transport, roads, or running water; dilapidated housing; poor healthcare and pollution from nearby industrial plants. Lack of access to the internet is also sometimes cited.

As recently as 2009, a family living in a Tunisian town was three times more likely than a rural family to be connected to the public water and sewage network. Progress was made in connecting rural households to running water and the electrical grid, but sometimes the cost of paying water rates deterred rural households from taking up the new water service.

Although back in 1984 it was an increase in the price of bread that spurred unrest across Tunisia, inflation has been relatively docile in recent years. In the usual Ramadan focus on food prices, the local media has this year noted a sharp increase in meat and other food prices, as well as shortages of some basic foodstuffs such as sugar, for which clandestine exports to Libya are blamed.

But consumer price inflation is estimated at about 4.5 per cent this year, up from 3.5 per cent in 2010. Low comparative pay among certain sectors of the population, along with unemployment and underemployment, is driving discontent in rural areas.

It is something employers are acutely aware of. The number of holidaymakers visiting Tunisia is down more than 60 per cent on last year as a result of the revolution and also because of the war in neighbouring Libya; an estimated 3,000 jobs have been lost in the sector.

But the Tunisian Hoteliers’ Federation complains that the tour operators who are insisting on cut-price packages to entice Europeans to Tunisia this year are squeezing margins in an industry where most employees’ pay packets are already modest.

“One step further and they’ll be asking us to throw tourists’ pocket money into the deal also,” commented the federation’s Faouzia Belajouza. The cut-price packages, however, have this summer put a beachside break within the reach of more middle-class Tunisian families than last year.

In addition to the latest round of wage increases for public and private-sector workers negotiated with the UGTT trade union federation, and a new allowance for some graduate jobseekers, the social affairs ministry announced on August 4 that 185,000 low-income families would receive a one-off cash payment, the equivalent of $55, to tide them over during the holy month of Ramadan. And 430,000 school and college students will receive cash pay-outs, of $22 and $73 dollars respectively, in time for the beginning of the autumn term.

Following the revolution, however, state aid will not be distributed as a method of buying political allegiance but will be allocated purely in terms of need, the ministry said, keen to signal a break with the past.

The low-income families were already registered with the ministry because under Mr Ben Ali, as also with Habib Bourguiba, his predecessor, a basic economic safety net was in operation.

Two years after the 1984 bread riots, a National Assistance Programme for Needy Families began monthly pay-outs, and the other funds, especially the 26-26 National Solidarity Fund, set up by the presidency itself, made pay-outs in cash and goods during Ramadan and at the beginning of the school year. There was also action on jobs in the early 2000s, with a fund to improve training for the younger jobless.

But under Mr Ben Ali’s Tunisia, this monetary assistance was often allocated with loyalty to the RCD, his ruling party, as the main criteria.

In towns in the centre and west of the country work-creation schemes, known by the French term “chantier”, have taken more of the unemployed on to their books than previously, although with some allegations of corruption and nepotism in the allocation of places.

Meanwhile Badreddine Ben Henda, a columnist in Le Temps newspaper, recalled a specifically north African term – “zaouali” – used to describe the working poor: “The ‘zaouali’ is not a beggar and is not marginalised; he or she is someone who works but struggles to provide the family with bread . . . If the gap between those who live comfortably and the ‘zaoualis’ continues to widen, the revolution will have failed to achieve its basic goals.”
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