Egypt Independent

Tunisia needs a revolution for economic integrity



Pictures of unemployed, self-immolated 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi line the offices of Tunisian officials, who emphasize a clear break with the ousted regime in every sector, except the economy.

In post-revolution Tunisia, the economic vision remains fixated almost solely on boosting European tourism. Officials lauded a 36-percent increase in tourism figures in the first quarter of 2012 as a sign that the post-revolutionary economy is recovering. “Our objective is to recover the figures of 2010,” director of the North African nation’s tourism office, Habib Ammar, told AFP, citing statistics from the rule of the 23-year dictatorship of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, whom the ruling party hopes to try for crimes against the Tunisian people.

Immediately after the revolution in 2011, the interim government worked together with international advertising company Memac Ogilvy to create a series of humiliating ads targeting European tourists. “They say Tunisia is nothing but ruins,” read one slightly disparaging ad to potential British guests, with a picture of the Roman ruins at Carthage. A British newspaper article promoted Tunisia as a travel destination by saying that “Tunisia keeps kids busier” at resorts with amusement park-style facilities, while parents can enjoy spa treatments and scenic beaches. The newspaper article featured pictures of children on water slides and practicing archery at Tunisia’s Holiday Village Manar. One photograph showed a bed, big enough for five people, in a room with hardwood floors and art deco flourishes.

Tunisia is thus exhibited as a Disneyland for our old friends across the Mediterranean. The problem, however, with this exhibit is that after Tunisia’s revolution that called for integrity, our biggest contribution to the global market is to keep European children busy at our resorts, while people in places like Bouazizi’s hometown, Sidi Bouzid, remain angry and unemployed.

What Tunisia really needs after the revolution is another movement, this time calling solely for economic integrity. The country is thirsty for new sustainable enterprises to employ Tunisian youth and give the country the honor it deserves.

It is quite challenging, however, to break from the culture that enslaved the modern Tunisian economy. As a Tunisian friend told me, “Tourism runs the nation.” This statement reflects the mindset that truly hijacked the modern Tunisian economy and based our economic livelihood on such a volatile sector.

It is true, however, that Tunisia needs money more than ever. Last year, during the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Elliot Abrams, of a Washington-based think thank, told me “revolutions cost money.” The new rulers of Tunisia have failed, however, to address the prescient economic imperatives behind the revolution. The unemployment rate in Tunisia continues to hover around 20 percent.

Tunisian Finance Minister Houcine Dimassi resigned Friday in a letter expressing his dismay with a recent policy of the ruling party, Ennahda, which pays itself restitution allocated for “martyrs” of the revolution. The beneficiaries included several Ennahda party members, whom have long been exiled from the country. If the new Tunisian government is indeed different, it needs to avoid the kind of kickbacks to the ruling party that characterized the ancien regime.

Government money should, however, fund the diversification of industry. Tourism depends on tourists’ whims and it will never solve the country’s economic hardships.

There are members of Tunisian society who try to bring new industry and entrepreneurship to the nation’s under-employed, over-educated youth. Tunisian-American eBay executive Sami Ben Romdhane, who has worked with Apple, has tried to turn Tunisia into “the Silicon Valley of the Arab World.” Young Tunisians who articulated the language of the revolution have made great use of technology and the Internet through Twitter and Facebook. Many among this same youth have developed an interest in the information technology industry.

Still, the government has taken no measures to harness this interest into the development of a national IT industry. “If someone wants to start a new Silicon Valley in Tunisia, they will need an official framework for venture capital funds to operate in a legal way,” Ben Romdhane told me over the phone from California. Without venture capital to start IT businesses, entrepreneurs are a high risk of losing their investments if their business fails. Who would want to become an entrepreneur in Tunisia with those odds?

Ben Romdhane discussed this matter with the interim government in order to provide a legal framework for entrepreneurship in his ancestral homeland, but says that since Ennahda came to power, it has neglected to engage him in discussions about economic development in the post-revolutionary nation.

What that says to me is that the new ruling party is afraid to develop the economy, because a strong middle class often results in the creation of a capable civil society that pushes governments to democratize.

Ennahda still has a chance to show that Islamism is compatible with democracy by diversifying the economy and finding new sustainable industries that give Tunisians their true socio-economic rights. Tunisians are truly frustrated by this Disneyland façade that has defined the image of the country by the old regime.

Massoud Hayoun is a Tunisian-American writer. He has written for The Atlantic, TIME Magazine, and AFP.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.