The expertly crafted Tunisian mirage

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Democracy and economic progress

Behind these falsified or erased statistics, lie the flaws of the Tunisian economy. Dynamic it may be, but too little diversified and too dependent upon Europe which accounts for more than 70% of both its exports and imports (and 80% of its tourism industry). While the number of higher education graduates continues to rise following considerable investment in education over recent years, unqualified posts, notably in tourism and agriculture, still account for too large a part of employment overall. This has produced an employment bottleneck for graduates. About 70% of all the unemployed in Tunisia are aged under 30.

Lahcen Achy, a research scholar with the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, is the author of a November 2010 study ('Trading high unemployment for bad jobs: Employment challenges in the Maghreb') on youth unemployment in the Mahgreb countries. He argues that the blindness shown by international institutions in face of Tunisia's chronic problems is down to international strategies. "Relations with Tunisia have always been marked by a great deal of diplomacy," he commented. "It is a question of providing a model, including its relationship with Islamists, even if that means overlooking certain economic problems."

The recent events in Tunisia have brought back to the fore a question that Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen appeared for many to have already answered, and which international organisations are dancing around without openly affronting; does the absence of democracy handicap a country's economic drive? The UN's 2010 Human Development Report noted that "Tunisia has had the same president for the past 23 years, while Nepal just abolished its monarchy after protracted political conflict. Indonesia and Oman made much of their progress in health and education under authoritarian rule. In Bangladesh, despite several governance setbacks [...] Clearly, an amazing variety of institutions are compatible with human progress."

"We had already heard that one during Pinochet's time, the idea that democracy is not necessary for economic progress," commented Karim Bitar. "That was how Ben Ali was given the nickname Zinochet."

It remains to be seen whether the Arab countries neighbouring Tunisia, with regimes more or less authoritarian, could, having shaped policies on the Tunisian economic model, now find themselves on the same path towards revolt. While none of the economists interviewed here believed that will be the case in the short-term, due to the strength of the army in Algeria and the influence of the United States in Egypt and Jordan, they saw it as a now irreversible process over the medium-term.


1: The nickname Zinochet is a play on the last name of former Chilean dicator Gerneral Augusto Pinochet and the first name of former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.


English version: Graham Tearse
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