The Amilcar Notes (Part 3): Tunisia's Forgotten Socio-Economic Crisis
1. ENI (L’Ecole Nationale d’Ingenieurs de Tunis)
The El Manar campus of the University of Tunis stands high upon a hill far above the center of downtown Belvedere. The campus is home to some 30,000 students, among them many studying the sciences. ENIT – or L’Ecole Nationale d’Ingenieurs de Tunis – is one of Tunisia’s most prestigious institutes, producing an annual crop of about 1,000 engineers of all varieties. The students who qualify to study there are among Tunisia’s brightest and most diligent.
I visited the campus the day a jobs fair was taking place (December 7, 2011). At a time of high unemployment with the Tunisian economy bleeding jobs at an alarming rate, I asked about the job prospects for ENIT’s graduates. The response surprised me: virtually 100% of the engineers graduating from ENIT find employment and usually immediately. Rare among Tunisians these days, they will probably enjoy stable and generally well-paid jobs their whole lives.
With its highly educated work force, led by graduates of institutes like ENIT, Tunisia already possesses a human capital, a solid intellectual and technical basis for becoming the economic engine of the Magreb (North Africa), being something much more than part of a region which feeds Europe with raw materials, food and provides tourist facilities for German and Nordic tourists, and those from surrounding Arab countries. From the point of view of political economy, the question emerges: given the political changes and new openness, can Tunisia re-invent itself economically, building on the solid foundations that have already been laid
Yes, Tunisia is in the midst of a powerful socio-economic crisis, itself a part of the global crisis of neo-liberal capitalism. But looking around the Mediterranean, with the possible exception of France, which is struggling with European integration, the entire region is in dire straits. Tunisia’s neighbors are facing the same or worse crises. Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Greece, Spain, Portugal – just to name a few of the most obvious cases are all in many ways in worse condition than Tunisia. Looked at from this point of view, frankly, despite all its problems, ironically, Tunisia probably has better prospects of pulling out of the crisis than many of the other countries in the region.
2. The Stats
If the prospects for ENIT graduates are promising, this is not the case for most other Tunisian youth graduating from universities. The pickings are slim and becoming slimmer with overall possibilities for Tunisian economic growth in the foreseeable future not promising. This is true throughout the Middle East and is triggered by different factors, among them the global economic slowdown and Tunisian heavy reliance on European growth to fuel their exports and tourism.
The structure of the Tunisian economy itself, essentially a periphery to a European core, adds to the tension. On the one hand Tunisia is producing mostly low and medium end products for a European market while its university graduates, some of the region’s finest, are trained for more complex economic activities for which there are no jobs in Tunisia, and so many of Tunisia’s best and brightest leave for the Gulf, for Europe or North America. And they are the lucky ones who were able to find work. This tension between a highly educated work force and the likely job possibilities is one of the key factors that triggered the revolt, the case in point being Mohammed Bouazizi, a young man with some university education, forced by circumstance to set up an unlicensed fruit stand in a town with high youth unemployment
Still, although the overall Tunisian economy is expected to shrink by 3.3% this year with many alarming corresponding indicators being produced daily in the country’s media, there are a few bright spots here and there in the date that suggests limits to the free fall and the keys to a possible recovery.
Despite the more somber statistics of anticipated overall decline, according to Le Temps (12/7/2011) the country’s export sector is actually showing positive growth signs. In 2011, a year of political turmoil for the country, still exports grew for the first 11 months by about 7.3%. Agricultural exports were in the lead, jumping 39.8% from 2010; electrical product exports grew by 22.9%. There were modest gains for textiles and leather exports of 6.4%. Add to this the fact that throughout the crisis so many Tunisians got up and got to work, working factories often with managers, ministries without ministers and given these limitations, not missing their managers all that much.
Not bad for a country experiencing a full blown political crisis that would have crippled many other countries in similar situations far more.
On the other hand the phosphate sector – a critical one – and its derivatives took a big hit, shrinking by 36% and another mainstay of the Tunisian economy, tourism, was badly hit as well. True, the 7.3% growth in exports is quite modest compared to export growth in 2009, 2010, but still a hopeful sign. Imports shrank a bit from 2010, the main imports being basic food stuffs and energy. That Tunisia should need to import basic foodstuffs – essentially grains – is ironic considering that this country has been one of Europe’s bread baskets not for centuries but for millennia.
3. The Implications
Of course it is easy to get lost in the figures. The heart of the matter is that the Tunisian economy slowed in 2011, export growth helped slow the decline some but not enough to turn the economy around by a long shot or to reverse the continued loss of jobs.
Given the continued political instability – admittedly mild compared to what is going on in Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Libya – and the unresolved crisis of the euro, the prospects of any kind of economic jumpstart or quick recovery appear almost out of the question.
The best that can be done is to keep the economy in a holding pattern.
It is unlikely that even this modest goal can be accomplished without activating the state’s role in creating jobs and social programs. Tunisia’s economy in fact is crying out for state intervention. Without this, the social crisis threatens to deepen yet again with almost predictable consequences. The fact is that the Tunisian market by itself, for all its problems, still one of the more vibrant ones in the region, is incapable of generating enough growth to turn the situation around. Tunisia indeed is a case study of neo-liberal market oriented limitations.
Mohammed Bouazizi’s death by fire a year ago should have also marked the end of a certain kind of economic development that had run its course. To continue on the path Tunisia followed as a "model IMF student" is to repeat the economic mistakes of the path and, frankly to invite disaster. This is not so difficult to predict – it was precisely in implementing this model – the silence of any self-criticism of the IMF aside – that contributed in large measure to the socio-economic collapse in the first place.
4. No Discussion of the Failure of Neo-liberalism in Tunisia
Certainly the ENIT graduates have a key role to play in Tunisia’s future and for them, the future looks good. Yet for so many other Tunisians, working or unemployed, the future looks grim at the moment. Tunisian’s might have won the freedom of expression for which they dearly fought, but virtually no one from the political parties or in the media are talking about the economic roots of the crisis.
Triggering this crisis was massive unemployment, few job opportunities for university graduates entering the job market, the eroding overall standard of living of everyone, wage suppression and political repression, all of which are connected to the IMF/World Bank sponsored neo-liberal economic model Tunisia embraced almost immediately in full almost immediately after Ben Ali came to power in 1987.
Yet, few people are talking about the death of Tunisian neo-liberalism as if all the underlying tensions in the economy didn’t exist. Tunisia is still searching for money from wherever it can get it and on whatever terms it is offered. Wage suppression continues unabated as do strikes all over the country. Given current wage rates, the strikes and other job actions are not likely to end soon. You’d think that Tunisia’s economic collapse came from workers seeking a living wage rather than rapacious capitalists trying to steal everything in sight.
While it certainly is true that one goal for which Tunisians were fighting for overthrowing Ben Ali was freedom of speech, workers – whose critical role in Ben Ali’s demise is hardly recognized – were fighting for the right to organize and collectively bargain, for a living wage which most of them do not have. Much emphasis has been placed on Ben Ali’s efforts to stymie freedom of speech; very few people have noticed that a fundamental goal in his repressive policies was to deny wage increase requests "to keep workers in their place" in order to keep Tunisian exports competitive.
5. Wage Suppression: at the Heart of Ben Ali’s Neo-liberalism
In fact wage suppression is at the very heart and soul of Ben Ali’s "new authoritarianism." Combined with other classic structural adjustment takeaways like cutting the subsidies on food and energy, under-funding education and medical care, wage repression worked to undermine the Tunisian standard of living considerably. Yet during darker times, one rarely heard Tunisian human rights activists or the Tunisian business community complaining about wage repression.
One example of the lengths to which Ben Ali was willing to go to suppress the call for jobs and wage increases is, in 2008 in Redeyef, in the Gafsa mining region. It took the government six months to crush the movement; hundreds were arrested, many tortured, some died. When it was over no relief of any kind came through from the state. 2008 was a prelude to the events of last year.
Although slow on the uptake in the first days of the national resistance after Bouazizi’s passing, the labor movement was there when it counted and was a key factor in tipping the balance against the dictator. Twitter and Facebook were useful to tools in the effort to kick out Ben Ali. But it didn’t hurt at all that two days before he, wife and family left the country that 150,000 people called for his resignation in Sfax on January 12, in a demonstration organized by the Union General de Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT). It seems to have been quickly forgotten that on the next day, January 13, it was the UGTT that called for a nationwide general strike for January 14. As a million strong Tunisians marched on Tunis to demand their rights and call for his resignation, Ben Ali thought it the wiser to skedaddle off to Saudi Arabia with "the Mrs."
6. The Rayon Bread Factory Sit-in in Jendouba
It should come as no surprise that as soon as Ben Ali was overthrown and freedom of speech extended generally, labor actions and strikes began almost immediately and have continued until today. Virtually every sector of the Tunisian economy has had major strikes, sit-ins, and hunger strikes, from oil workers in the south, to teachers nationwide. These strikes and militant labor actions have gone on non-stop. Sit ins for jobs have gone on almost non-stop in the Gafsa region. On the Tunisian-Algerian border several hundred people gathered to block the border crossing to protest the job and social crisis. Such demonstrations are being increasingly broken up by the military who more and more find themselves breaking up strikes and demonstrations
Yesterday’s paper had a story about a sit-in at a bread factory in Jendouba, in the northwest of the country. It produces 80% of the country’s bread.
Bread is a highly politically sensitive product in Tunisia. In 1984, in response to IMF pressures to lift bread subsidies, then President Habib Bourguiba ended the subsidies causing the price of bread to double overnight. What followed were called bread riots. They were crushed by the Tunisian military. Immediately thereafter, Bourguiba re-instated the subsidies. His relations with the IMF deteriorated. There is some speculation that one of the reasons that Bourguiba was removed from power in 1986 was related to his poor IMF relations. True, it is not proven, but almost immediately after taking office, Zine Ben Ali re-established relations with the IMF and World Bank and began – quite enthusiastically to accept the structural adjustment criteria for getting loans.
The Jenbouba sit-in at the bread factory was broken up by the Tunisian army on the day that bread supplied to local bakeries was about to run out. One sees in this incident the role that the military is going to be called on to play – to break strikes. It was a curious sit-in as it was not the bakers in the factory who organized it but sugar workers who shared the facility with them and whose economic grievances had not been addressed. The sugar workers rightly felt that by blocking the bread factory it would draw attention to their plight and it did so they blocked the entrances and exits so that supplies could not enter and bread shipments could not leave.
In the end, the newly formed Tunisian government can deal with labor’s demands only in a few ways: they can improve the condition, acknowledging decades of wage suppression and deteriorating social programs, or as in Jendouba they can crush such movements, which seems to be the chosen option. Despite the fact that low wages were one of the main causes of the uprising, the financial markets and much of Tunisia’s business community is set on keeping wage levels unchanged. Now a few days short of the one year anniversary of Mohammed Bouazizi’s immolation, the socio-economic crisis in Tunisia has hardly been addressed. This cannot bode well for the future.
Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.