Tunisia’s economy ‘waiting for a miracle’

Mass unemployment is gripping Tunisia’s troubled mining regions, while the country’s tourism sector gets a major blow.

Tunisia economy
Recent unrest in Tunisia's impoverished south is a reminder that the country faces pressing economic and social concerns [EPA]

Douz, Tunisia – For much of the past week, the world’s eyes have been trained on Sousse, the seaside city where a gunman opened fire on holidaymakers on June 26, killing 39 people.

The massacre came three months after two gunmen killed 19 tourists at the Bardo National Museum in Tunisia’s capital.

While the fallout from the attacks draws international attention, recent unrest in Tunisia’s impoverished south is a reminder that the country also faces pressing economic and social concerns.

Four years after the 2011 uprising that toppled Tunisia’s longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, people are growing increasingly frustrated with what they see as a lack of economic dividends from the revolution.

On Sunday, Tunisian president declared a state of emergency saying that “the continued threat” that Tunisia faced left the country in “a state of war”.

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On a recent, blistering afternoon in the Tunisian desert town of Douz, Taher and Abdullah, two men in their mid-20s who asked that their family names not be revealed, sat in a café discussing their frustration with Tunisia’s economic situation.

Outside the café, the main street leading to the centre of Douz was littered with spent tear gas canisters.

The police station two buildings away had yawning, smoke-blackened holes in its façade where there had once been windows and doors.

Taher and Abdullah, along with other young men from the town, drove the police and National Guard out of Douz on June 5, and torched their stations following a week of clashes after police stopped them from demonstrating for employment and economic transparency in Tunisia’s oil and gas sector.

“Since the revolution, none of our demands have been accomplished,” Abdullah told Al Jazeera. “Maybe the demands of people in the north have been, but not in Douz. It’s as if we belong to Algeria.”

“We want employment. It’s our right as Tunisian citizens. We want the same rights as people who live on the coast,” Taher added.

He said that since the time of Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956, the coastal regions of the country have received preferential treatment and disproportionately benefited from development – a common opinion among his community. 

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The clashes in Douz came after a month of strikes over employment in the neighbouring governorate of Gafsa that shut down production in Tunisia’s phosphate mining industry.

The two incidents are the most recent manifestations of simmering economic frustration in southern Tunisia.

These frustrations have periodically flared up since the 2011 uprising, which itself stemmed from the nexus of economic woes and state repression.

The National Union for Security Force Syndicates declined to speak with Al Jazeera regarding the events in Douz, and Tunisia’s Ministry of Interior did not respond to multiple requests for an interview on the subject.

“It’s impossible to determine who was right and wrong,” Dhafer Neji, a spokesperson in the prime minister’s office told Al Jazeera.

Prime Minister Habib Essid has said that however legitimate their claims, the government will not tolerate the destructive actions of protesters.

In Metlaoui, a mining town in Gafsa governorate, 29-year-old Nadhim Gafsi and his wife are expecting their second child.

Gafsi has never had a job besides serving drinks at a local café.

“If [my earnings] were enough to take care of my family, I wouldn’t be protesting,” he told Al Jazeera.

Despite phosphate mining’s importance to Tunisia’s economy, Gafsa has the highest unemployment rate in the country at 26.2 percent, according to the 2014 Tunisian census. The overall unemployment rate in Tunisia is 14.8 percent.

Continued protests are manifestation of the simmering economic frustration in southern Tunisia [EPA]
Continued protests are manifestation of the simmering economic frustration in southern Tunisia [EPA]

For one month, Gafsi and other unemployed men from Metlaoui and the surrounding mining towns shut down production at Tunisia’s state-owned Gafsa Mining Company (CPG).

Their strike began on May 5, after the newly appointed governor to the region failed to fulfil employment promises made by his predecessor.

“They promised us jobs, but we didn’t receive them,” Gafsi told Al Jazeera.

“The impact has been huge,” Fadhel Hamida, an administrator in the CPG, told Al Jazeera regarding the strikes.

He explained that the CPG risks losing some of its foreign clients to competition from other countries, and the company loses about $1.5m in production for every day that workers are on strike.

Tunisia normally produces around 8 million tonnes of phosphate annually. But in the first six months of 2015, the CPG has only produced 1.5 million tonnes, according to Ibrahim Shimi, the Tunisian General Labour Union’s (UGTT) coordinator for the mining region.

If strikes start up again, the consequences could be catastrophic for the CPG and Tunisia’s economy.

Honestly, if we don’t handle this reality in a responsible way, the phosphate company could fail due to the strikes – and that would be catastrophic for the region and the whole country,” Shimi said.

Honestly, if we don't handle this reality in a responsible way, the phosphate company could fail due to the strikes - and that would be catastrophic for the region and the whole country.

by Ibrahim Shimi, Tunisian General Labour Union coordinator

The strike in Gafsa ended on June 8, after the government promised to send an envoy to the region to listen to the protesters demands. 

The government also announced that it would fulfil its previous employment promises by July 15 and establish a regional development fund with the support of the CPG.  

In Kebili governorate, where Douz is located, the government said it would create an industrial zone, invest in transportation infrastructure and create a regional development fund supported by the Tunisian National Oil Company and other oil companies in the governorate.

It also announced that it would create an online portal to provide transparency in Tunisia’s extractive industries.

The government’s plans are based on the principle of positive discrimination in order to help the interior regions of Tunisia overcome decades of economic marginalisation, according to Neji, the government spokesperson.

“[Some regions] have been forgotten about for 50 years. Maybe they should get something extra,” he said.  

However, Faiez Akermi, 33, the UGTT spokesperson in Gafsa, said protesters and civil society were not satisfied with the results of the government envoy’s June 15 trip.

They had expected him to visit Metlaoui and other mining towns to speak with protesters. Instead, he stayed in the regional capital.

“It’s the same plan that was promised by Ben Ali in 2009, and nothing happened. [It was] also promised in 2011 and nothing happened,” Akermi said. “It’s just ink on paper.”

He also added that he expected the protests to resume in the coming weeks.

In Douz, Youth Committee spokesperson Abdelmajid el-Marzougi,33, echoed a similar sentiment.

“The government changed, but the policies are the same,” he said. “Honestly, we don’t trust their words… You have to give me something concrete.”

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The police and National Guard have yet to return to Douz, and protesters are planning to continue to put pressure on the government to fulfil their demands.

Several political analysts view the government’s challenge in addressing these issues as more of a question of resources than will, especially with the full plate of concerns related to security. 

“There is a will,”said one analyst. “But they don’t have a lot of leverage… They don’t have money; they don’t have investments; they don’t have anything else to offer.”

“We are waiting for a miracle from heaven,” said Hamida, the CPG administrator. “But heaven won’t send one.”

Source: Al Jazeera