Tunisian revolution yet to solve inequality

A leading Tunisian economist warns that the underlying economic equalities behind the revolt are being ignored.

tunisia protests
Hassine Dimassi, an economics professor, wants fairer distribution of wealth in new Tunisia [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]

It took Tunisians just one month to push their loathed president from power.

In the weeks since they forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country, Tunisians have enjoyed a flurry of newly-found freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom to protest, and the freedom to form a political party.

Yet little has been done so far to address the deep-seated economic and social issues that helped to drive the revolt in the first place, a leading Tunisian economists tells Al Jazeera.

Months before the uprising, Hassine Dimassi, an economics professor at Sousse University and an advisor to the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT by its French acronym), warned Ben Ali’s government that anger over economic inequality in places such as Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine was reaching boiling point. 

But the former government chose to ignord Dimassi’s studies.

As the economist predicted, the Tunisian Uprising began in these very regions, before spreading to the capital.

Now, he says, politicians must do more to address economic inequalities if they are to avoid making exactly the same mistakes.

What role did the unions play in the revolt that took place in December and January?

I must be frank. For the first 15 days of the revolt, the UGTT did not play a major part. During the first 15 days, it was a completely spontaneous movement, carried out by the youth, and, in particular, those with higher education. But progressively, the revolt spread to other social groups. After the young people, the lawyers were the next group to play a major role, through the Tunisian Bar Association.

Only then did the UGTT come on board – through its grassroots activists, not the national leadership.

The UGTT was a decisive actor in the revolt, but only in the last hours of the regime – that is to say, on the 14th. It was the UGTT that really dealt the final blow [to Ben Ali’s rule].

Many international commentators have praised the economic model followed by Ben Ali’s government – Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing-director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), even called it a miracle. Yet it seems this model has not worked for the younger generation and the marginalised parts of the country.

Effectively, we must ask ourselves why this model totally failed, despite the cascade of praise from so many international financial institutions. It wasn’t just the IMF. The World Bank, Davos, all of them gave us flying marks. These institutions describe Tunisia as if it was close to paradise. If this was true, why would young people in their 20s take to the sea on bits of wood. Others have gone so far as to set themselves on fire to leave this ‘paradise’.

This is indicative of the complete failure of this type of development.

In reality, in terms of wealth creation, we’ve made progress. That is undeniable. There is growth. When the World Bank speaks, what is it talking about? It means the rate of growth of the country’s wealth. But the problem is the way in which this wealth is distributed, between generations or regions. These international institutions never talk about distribution.

There is no connecting the dots between different economic indicators. They evaluate the data uniquely from one perspective.

The government has opened the doors of the local market to Chinese imports in an anarchic and way. They have flooded the marketplace with very poor quality goods. The consequence has been that they’ve completely destroyed traditional handcrafts, which was an important source of income to families, especially in rural areas.

The final catastrophe that led the situation to explode involves higher education. Graduates have become a burden on their families, rather than an asset. Families ruined themselves to educate their children, yet the children graduated only to find themselves jobless. In my opinion, that is the straw that broke the camel’s back.

We still have huge problems for the future.

In the studies that you have conducted on Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine for the workers’ union, what did you find?

The situation is especially wretched in Kasserine, more so than in Sidi Bouzid. In Kasserine, the quality of life is much lower and an extremely high rate of unemployment. It is one of the most poverty-stricken regions in Tunisia. I found that something must be done, or else the situation would explode.

And it did explode. Because the state did not want to listen or take action.

The second thing is that these regions can never develop by themselves. There must be support from outside, there is too much poverty. What form can this support take? It could come as private investment, whether local or foreign. Unfortunately, this hasn’t born fruit over the last twenty years, in spite of significant tax incentives offer to private investors in these regions.

To give an idea of the extent of the problem [of uneven development], over the past twenty years, for every ten jobs created in the industrial sector, nine of them were along the eastern coast while only one was created in the rest of the country. This is despite state incentives to businesses.

When people leave the region of Kasserine, the most dynamic young people go overseas, to France, Italy et cetera. They make some money, but then their families move to the east. Any remittances are going to the richest parts of the country, not the inland regions. So migrants don’t tend to help develop these regions either.

Finally, the state has taken a hands-off approach to the economy. Since the 1990s, the argument has been that the government should no longer invest in productive sectors such as industry or tourism. So the state has been absent.

The conclusion that must be taken to avoid making the same errors in the future is that the state must itself take action in these regions. Otherwise we could see a repeat of the current situation in ten years.

In Kasserine, people told me that the problem is not just unemployment, but also the prevalence of exploitative outsourcing contracts. To what extent is this an issue?

Yes this is a complete catastrophe. But that’s not just in Kasserine, it’s a problem nationwide. The impact is more pronounced in Kasserine, because unemployment is already so high.

This type of temporary contract began in 1995-1996, when the labour code was reformed. Many businesses, and even public departments, including hospitals, high schools and universities, no longer hire staff directly for cleaning and other services. These contracts come with miserable salaries and no social security.

There is also the phenomenon of fixed-term contracts (CDD by the French acronym), which is a little less serious.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the divide between the UGTT’s regional members and the national leadership. Are those people within the UGTT who are closely linked to Ben Ali’s regime likely to be ousted?

There is most definitely a deepening rift, which began two or three years ago. The main split is between the executive leadership and the regional leadership. There are some regions where there is total rupture and others where it isn’t so severe. What is almost certain is there will be a radical change in the union’s leadership at the next national conference.

Will the youth be better-represented in the union’s leadership?

I don’t know, that depends on the balance of power. I hope so.
There are some excellent activists in the lower ranks who are capable of taking on roles at the national-level leadership. They haven’t been able to rise up through the ranks because they have been side-lined. This is one of the reasons there has been growing disagreement between the executive leadership and the rank-and-file.

People I interviewed in Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine said that, when Ben Ali took power (in 1987), they hoped things would change, but these hopes were never realised. Do any of the opposition parties have economic plans that could lead to genuine change this time around?

Not at all, unfortunately. The overwhelming majority of our parties, even now, have no social or economic programmes. There is a lot of political rhetoric, but that is the easy part. In terms of development models, there is almost nothing.

The problem is that, with one or two exceptions, there is little difference between them. Most of them are progressive-democratic. But when you look at their programmes, which are limited so far, Our parties aren’t strategy-centred, they are centred on people. And that is one of the biggest dangers for Tunisia in the future.

They have the same policies. Because the overwhelming majority have not done any analysis of the policies of the past twenty or thirty years. To come up with an alternative, they need to understand what has happened, in order to see what must be changed.

Instead, they have been preoccupied with slogans about freedom and the like. That’s good and necessary, but it’s not sufficient.

This interview has been translated from French and edited for length.

You can follow Yasmine on Twitter at @yasmineryan.

Source: Al Jazeera

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