Tunisia's New Government Confronts Rising Discontent

Article Summary
In Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, the new leadership is still grappling with high unemployment, an economy in crisis, and a worsening security situation, writes Synda Tajine. Tunisians are growing increasingly distrustful as Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali continues to insist that everything is fine.

In its fifth month at the Kasbah, the Troika government is grappling with a poor record and is being cornered by an opposition that is once again raising the idea of a​​"government of national salvation."

If the government finds itself "on track" while dismissing any attempt to reconcile with the opposition, then it should be recognized that their list of broken promises is gradually growing as their term proceeds. In such a moment of crisis, will the Jebali government be able to exit the tunnel? Or does it have more than one trick up its sleeve?

"Leave!" Hamma Hammami, leader of Tunisian Workers' Communist Party (PCOT), shouted. He reproached the Jebali government "for insisting on wanting to create something new out of something old." He said bluntly, “The Jebali government is destroying itself. Change is inevitable.”

Amid a troubling economic situation that may lead to social conflicts, the Jebali government is facing major challenges in implementing emergency measures. Regional disparities, the proliferation of corruption and the growth of smuggling and the informal economy, which are leading to increased prices. are all factors that are further complicating the government’s task.

Roughly 15 daily sit-ins, 10 general strikes and eight blocked roads were reported by the Ministry of Defense during the month of May alone. It should be noted that twice as many incidents were reported during the month of April.

These are indicators of a popular uprising against poverty, unemployment, high living costs and Troika government’s broken promises.

However, this does not seem to discourage members of the government. "We remain confident because the best is yet to come," retorts Lotfi Zitoun, advisor to the prime minister. "The current crisis is a normal consequence of the transitional period we are experiencing."

But despite the positive attitude of the government and its attempt to pretend that everything is under control, real difficulties seem to impair its legitimacy.

Chawki Abid, former adviser to the president, goes so far as to call on the Ennahdha party to leave office. He asks, "Has the 41 percent deliver on their commitments in terms of transitional justice, social honesty, fiscal equity and incentives for job creation? With great bitterness, I'm afraid to say that they haven't.”

In his inaugural speech on December 22, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali listed the government policy's main objectives and made a statement full of hope: "Employment is a priority!" This statement has remained rather abstract ever since.

Employment is listed as a top priority in the government’s agenda. As pledged, the unemployed, chiefly those who hold college degrees, would benefit from a series of measures that promised to offer 75,000 additional job opportunities in 2012.

Today, the government has once again failed to honor commitments regarding new job opportunities. Official figures from the Institute National de la Statistique show an unemployment rate of 18.1 percent in the first quarter of 2012, against 18.3 percent for the same period in 2011. However, these figures remain controversial and unfortunately, they do not reflect the country’s reality. The unemployment rates indicate a worsening economic situation, to say the least. The credit rating agency, S&P, just downgraded Tunisia’s long-term credit rating two notches to a speculative BB/B. Such a downgrade is based on an assessment without concessions. “The transitional government did not adopt any measures to improve the country’s economic situation,” said Jebali, confirming nevertheless that it’s is still not the time to sound the alarm.

Jebali added, "The government has plenty of time to put forth many reforms before the next ratings."

The advocates of the Jebali government argue that "the revolution's repercussions, the crisis in Europe and the social movements have a major impact on the country." Meanwhile, economists such as Zaafran Hafedh, an international expert in the field, accuse the government action program of "lacking depth and favoring a literary approach.”

Economists also criticize the 2012 Complementary Finance Act. “[The act] does not even have a clear message to reassure Tunisians," said Mohamed Haddar, president of the Tunisian Association of Economists (ASECTU).

Tunisia's volatile security condition is another upsetting concern that negatively affects the harsh grading of US rating agencies. This is not to mention the resurgence of violence and vandalism and social crimes, where many "parties" enjoy diplomatic immunity and are able to get away with their crimes.

This surge in violence is the outcome of the poor application of the law. The government undermines the gravity of the problems, promising to "resort to the use of live ammunition to restore order, if necessary."

The Salafists and other fundamentalists occupy all of the discussion, but the top priority must be on socio-economic development.

In a time when the regional disparities are deeper than ever and the case of the revolution’s martyrs has hit a dead end, the ministerial delegations that were sent to “closely reach out to the problems of the underprivileged areas” finds itself most bleakly welcome. Due to the lack of rapid progress, the roaring impatience is taking more and more diverse forms.

The delegates, who are being barricaded from accessing the citizens,  want to reassure them with more promises: new roads, new railroads, additional healthcare services and the rehabilitation of underprivileged cities. Their speeches will do little to convince the citizens of these underdeveloped areas.

Lotfi Zitoun says that "Tunisians are losing confidence in the entire political elite." Many politicians share Zitoun's opinion. When Jebali declares that prices are decreasing and Zitoun says that criminals [Editor's note: criminals who were responsible for the recent disturbances in the cities of Jendouba, Chardimaou, etc.] will be behind bars, the actions on the ground are certainly different. So many questions remain unanswered and promises have been sidelined.

What happened to the streamlining of the judiciary? When will the interior ministry be purged of criminals and corrupt officials? These themes and questions reflect a growing social anger. The hour of truth is approaching for the government of the Troika.

At a time when the gap between citizen and government is increasingly growing, a long-term vision of tomorrow's economy is anticipated more than ever.

Despite this gloomy scene of the Tunisian landscape, many factors bode well. Tourism, although weakened, is returning to form. Foreign investments and the stock market, on the other hand, do not seem to suffer from the crisis.

Is this a transitional period or an actual impasse? We shall soon find out.

Found in: social unrest, unemployment, tunisian economy, troika government, troika, hamma hammami, hamadi jebali, ennahdha party

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