Friday, August 19, 2011

Tunisia Grapples With Economic Strains

By Eileen Byrne
As Tunisia nears its first post-revolutionary elections, the social and economic problems that helped trigger the ousting of President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali remain and are likely to play a big part in the poll.
High expectations for speedy change among hard-pressed families in poorer urban neighbourhoods and villages across the country have left the interim government scrambling to keep tensions at manageable levels before October’s ballot to elect an assembly that will rewrite the constitution and pick a new cabinet.
The surge in employee protests that followed the end of the authoritarian Ben Ali regime is causing concern among foreign investors as well as local companies, while no immediate solution is in sight to the high levels of youth unemployment that sparked the revolution.
In the immediate aftermath of Mr Ben Ali’s toppling in January, 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. 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.
While inflation had been relatively docile in recent years, the local media has begun to note 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 war-torn Libya are blamed. Consumer price inflation is estimated at about 4.5 per cent this year, up from 3.5 per cent in 2010.
At the same time, jobs and wages are being squeezed by the post-revolutionary fallout. 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, while an estimated 3,000 jobs have been lost in the sector.
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,” said the federation’s Faouzia Belajouza.
Other businesses have more nebulous worries about the continued discontent. A recent survey of more than 50 members of the German-Tunisian Chamber of Commerce and Industry found that – while many were broadly upbeat about prospects – 92 per cent cited the lack of stability in the country’s politics and labour relations as a problem.
The government and employers have responded with wage increases for some public and private-sector workers 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 of $55 to tide them over during the ongoing holy month of Ramadan, while 430,000 school and college students will receive cash pay-outs of between $22 and $73.
In towns in the centre and west of the country, work-creation schemes have taken more of the unemployed on to their books – although allegations of corruption and nepotism, like so many other ugly features of the Ben Ali regime, still persist as the landmark elections approach.
This article was published in The Financial Times on 15/08/2011

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