Tunisia's politicians trade allegations amid economic downward spiral

Disputes in Tunisia's fractious political scene have delayed reforms and worsened economic stagnation

A handout picture provided by the Tunisian Presidency Press Service on April 9, 2021 shows Tunisian President Kais Saied (2-R), Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi (R) and Assembly (parliament) speaker Rached Ghannouchi (2-L) in the capital Tunis, during a ceremony to commemmorate 'Martyrs' Day'.  === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / PRESIDENCY FACEBOOK PAGEE " - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ===
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Hopes of a political solution to Tunisia’s economic crisis are fading fast among those living on the breadline, who say they are struggling to survive as the economy continues to crumble.

Stymied by infighting, Tunisia’s fractured parliament and leadership are unable to act to rectify the impact of decades of economic mismanagement and the coronavirus pandemic, which has added strain on the country’s ailing finances.

I live off handouts from my mother's pension, or from my fiancée, who works in a factory

Disillusioned by the country’s politicians and unable to find work at home, Tunisia’s youngest and brightest are leaving for Europe in droves by whatever means they can. For those who remain, a life of destitution is all they have, even if they are highly qualified.

"Most of the young people here are unemployed," said Nassredine, as the sun set over a kiosk in Ezzahrouni where dozens of other jobless young people gather each day.

"I have four diplomas and a baccalaureate but have not had a job for two-and-a-half years," he said.

All along Ezzahrouni’s main street, crowds of unemployed people congregated around the bus stations.

He did not want to give his surname or age, but Nassredine’s fruitless search for work in Ezzahrouni, a marginalised district to the west of Tunis, is a familiar fate for young people in the capital, where opportunities for work are limited.

"I live off handouts from my mother's pension, or from my fiancée, who works in a factory in Bizerte," he said.

Mass unemployment has spread to every corner of the North African nation, driving people to undertake the perilous crossing to Europe over the Mediterranean.

This year's migration figures have already set records.

By March this year, more than 1,000 Tunisians had been intercepted trying to reach Italy.

As Covid-19 continues to bite, hopes of an end to the economic crisis have continued to fade, with the virus impacting all aspects of Tunisia’s economy.

In January, frustration at the government's inability to tackle Tunisia's economic and social crisis exploded into protests, with a police crackdown following in districts like Ezzahrouni and Hai Ettadhanem on the capital’s north-western edge.

Unemployment remains at around 16 per cent in Tunisia, but in areas like Ezzahrouni and smaller towns in the country’s interior, it can be more than twice as high.

A prominent Tunisian economist, Radhi Meddeb, told The National that the economic situation in the country "has deteriorated dramatically".

For Mr Meddeb, this deterioration arose from a combination of both rents and privileges afforded to those close to power.

Tunisia’s economic decline, he said, was also the result of the "calamitous management of public affairs during the last ten years," where the priority has been given to political issues and social remedies at the expense of strengthening the economy.

The economy, already in crisis before the pandemic, has been battered by the measures introduced to temper its worst effects, including the temporary closure of all borders last year.

An elderly woman registers to receieve a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at El-Menzah sports hall in Tunisia's capital Tunis on April 12, 2021, as vaccination centres in the North African country experience an influx of registrations a day ahead of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.  / AFP / FETHI BELAID
An elderly woman registers to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine in Tunis on April 12, 2021. AFP.

"The confinement and shutdown of entire sectors such as tourism, catering, transport," Mr Meddeb said, caused the economy to shrink by 8.8 per cent in 2020.

Tunisia’s divided politicians have so far been unable to act decisively to free the country from its economic predicament.

Growing apathy 

As a result of the deadlock, frustration with the country's politicians is rife.

In the most recent poll by Emrhod Consulting, more than 70 per cent of respondents refused to back any political party, with the majority of those who did throwing in with the old regime's continuation movement, Parti Libre Destouria, (PDL), whose firebrand leader Abir Moussi even denies that the revolution took place.

In Tunis, President Kais Saied, Prime Minister Hechim Mechichi and the parliamentary speaker, Ennahda's Rashid Ghannouchi, remain mired in stand-off, with each vehemently disputing the limits of the other's powers.

In the relatively short life of the current parliament, the President has refused to swear in four of Mechichi's proposed ministers, citing conflicts of interest.

Earlier this week, President Saied also claimed jurisdiction over the country's internal security forces in a move certain to rile Prime Minister Mechichi, who also serves as acting Minister of Interior.

The battle royale at the highest level of government has hurt Tunisia’s ability to raise financing on international markets or negotiate further tranches of the IMF loan agreed in 2013, Mr Meddeb said.

Youssef Cherif, a political analyst and head of the Columbia Centre in Tunis, said: “The current stalemate is blocking the country."

Mr Cherif said the political infighting was creating “a growing mistrust in public institutions among the populations”. This, he added, had created a vacuum which could be exploited by anti-democratic forces trying to sabotage Tunisia’s “fledgling democratic transition”.

Tourism revenues crash 

With coronavirus cases continuing to rise and restrictions being tightened, this year’s tourist season – a cornerstone of the country's economy, looks uncertain.

One internal solution open to Tunisia remains a National Dialogue, similar to that which pulled the country back from the brink in 2013 following the assassination of two leading politicians, as well as its less prominent successor, which fizzled out in amid a welter of disputes in 2018.

Progress towards a third run of the initiative had looked assured, with the country's powerful general trade union, the UGTT, agreeing most of the focus points with the government as recently as March 31st.

However, in a speech marking the anniversary of the death of the country's first President, Habib Bourghiba, Mr Saied appeared to rule out the option, issuing a statement saying there would be no dialogue with "thieves" or those “parties unable to provide solutions”.

Mr Cherif said Tunisia needed a national dialogue.

“The only player that can lead one is the UGTT. But the chances of it going ahead aren't that big, because of the hostilities between the, [different] components of the political spectrum," he said, referring to the impasse in the country’s executive.

Any hope of success would rely upon both the president and the Ennahda party reaching a compromise, Mr Cherif explained, which would at least allow Mechichi a route out of the impasse.

Ironically, one of the areas of dispute is the means of resolving the deadlock, the Constitutional Court, mandated in 2014, but which remains unformed.

Under the original legislation, the President, Parliament and the Judiciary could each nominate four people to the twelve-member body.

However, a bill intended to reduce the number of votes parliament needed to confirm its candidate was rejected by the president in early April.

Pointing out the length of time since its mandate, and presumably fearing a check on his powers, President Saied said: "I will not accept a court formed to settle accounts.”

Rising poverty 

Civil society activist Henda Chennaoui said the political impasse was not helping the economic crisis.

"No one is doing anything to find stability in the country," she said, pointing to the dirty tricks used by all sides in the stalemate to gain ground on the other.

The political maneuverings of Tunisia’s leaders seem far removed from the everyday concerns of those living in Ezzahrouni.

epa09132575  A Tunisian man sells vegetables on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at a market in Tunis, Tunisia, 13 April 2021. Muslims began observing the dawn-to-dusk fast for the holy month of Ramadan across many parts of the Middle East on Tuesday 13 April. to draw worshippers closer to God through sacrifice, remembrance and heightened spirituality.  EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA
A Tunisian man sells vegetables on the first day of Ramadan at a market in Tunis, Tunisia. EPA

But young people like Nassredine are bearing the brunt of Tunisia’s continued economic woes.

With weariness etched upon his face, Nassredine said he had been offered casual night shifts working as a security guard but the coronavirus curfew had made the job obsolete even before he'd started.

Now, even a trip to his own city centre appears out of reach.

"I could go there, I suppose, but I'd have to find the money for transport," he said.