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Tunisians Tell the World: Don't Forget About Us
The Washington Diplomat / March 2011

By Larry Luxner Special to The Washington Diplomat (1,270 words)

The revolution in Egypt has grabbed international attention, but the country that sparked the current Arab uprising seems to have receded from the world’s collective memory. Yet Tunisia remains mired in economic and political chaos as it struggles to erase vestiges of the corrupt Ben Ali dictatorship that ruled the country for 23 years.

Although overshadowed, Tunisians themselves are pressing forward with rebuilding and redefining their nation. On Feb. 7, Tunisia’s first private-sector delegation since the triumph of the street revolution that drove longtime President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power arrived in Washington for a week of meetings with lawmakers, lobbyists, ambassadors, business executives and nonprofit groups.

“We’re confident our future will be very bright, and that we will go through a transition process that will lead us to a democratic society,” said Mondher Ben Ayed, president and director-general of the information technology company TMI and past president of the Tunisian American Chamber of Commerce.

“However, it is important for people in the U.S. to understand that we will be facing challenges on a short-term basis, because the revolution has created instability. This revolution did not have a leader and it was spontaneous. Everybody participated, and it’s still going on. We are getting rid of corruption every day.”

Moncef Barouni, a prominent lawyer and president of the Tunisian American Friendship Association, pointed out that “this revolution was made and conceived by youth. Young people were the ones who stood up to Ben Ali and used new technology like Facebook to help mobilize Tunisian society. This was one of the factors of the success of this revolution.”

“Thanks to WikiLeaks, we knew the U.S. was not backing the Ben Ali regime,” he added. “But now, this friendship must be translated into concrete action. We look forward to economic assistance to provide jobs and encourage American investment in Tunisia.”

Ben Ayed, Barouni and their colleagues were interviewed by The Washington Diplomat at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington, on the sidelines of a luncheon sponsored by the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce (NUSACC). The four-man delegation was welcomed by the event’s keynote speaker, U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade Francisco Sánchez.

Ben Ayed said his country needs $3 billion to $4 billion in U.S. aid over the next two years alone. Asked if this wasn’t an enormous sum of money to request of Washington — considering the federal deficit and the relatively small size of Tunisia, population 10.3 million — the businessman retorted: “Your country is spending $90 billion a year in Iraq and has nothing to show for it. Tunisia is different. This is a real opportunity for the United States and the world to support a free, democratic country.”

The upheavals that began when 26-year-old vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and have continued despite Ben Ali’s Jan. 14 escape to Saudi Arabia have cost Tunisia between $5 billion to 8 billion, or 12 to 20 percent of its GDP, estimates the country’s interim prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi. (Arab stock exchanges lost nearly $50 billion in the last week of January alone as a result of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt.)

Besides the physical destruction of buildings and key infrastructure such as the Tunis railway station, the country’s tourism industry — which generated $1 billion in annual foreign exchange— has been decimated.

“Bookings are usually done in March or April, and the country is not stable yet,” Ben Ayed said, noting that the tourism sector employs 450,000 Tunisians and represents 14 percent of the country’s GDP. “However, Tunisia has inspired people all over the world, and people would like to come and see what it looks like.”

Jerry Sorkin, founder and president of TunisUSA, a travel agency, said the country’s new status as an inspiration for democracy may attract U.S. tourists, who have always constituted a tiny minority compared to the hordes of French, Spanish and German holidaymakers that normally crowd Tunisia’s picturesque Mediterranean resorts.

“Tunisia has always been very different from other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, and the daily images in the media of demonstrations and fighting in Egypt bear no resemblance to Tunisia or Tunisian society,” Sorkin said in an e-mail from Tunis. In addition to ancient Roman ruins and indigenous desert architecture, he said, “the country’s newest attraction is seeing a civil society that appears to be going through an orderly transition.”

In that sense, it wouldn’t be the first time Tunisia serves as a model for the rest of the Arab world, according to Moncef Mahroug, editorial director of Internet Management Group in Tunis.

“We were among the first Muslim countries to ban slavery, the first to have a constitution, in 1861, and the first to abolish polygamy and allow women to vote,” said Mahroug. “So we have a tradition of leadership.”

While Tunisia therefore already has several advantages going for it, the most immediate problem is the economy and specifically unemployment among the country’s youth, epitomized by struggling street vendor Bouazizi. While the national jobless rate is officially 14 percent, the amount of graduates out of work is double that, at roughly 30 percent.

In fact, some 80,000 students graduate from Tunisia’s colleges and universities every year. Under Ben Ali, the Tunisian economy was growing at 5 percent, which Ben Ayed says translated into 50,000 to 60,000 new jobs annually — meaning that 20,000 to 30,000 graduates will be unemployed.

“Over a 10-year period, that’s 300,000 jobs,” he pointed out. “Experts have estimated that if the economy were growing at 7 percent, then we would have created the needed 80,000 jobs. But we know today that Ben Ali’s family owned 40 percent of the economy, and 10 percent of total bank assets.”

Tunisia’s lucrative tourism industry was hit hard by the global economic downturn and financial crisis in neighboring Europe. But corruption alone may have shaved off 1.5 percent of annual GDP growth, which is one reason young Tunisians despise Ben Ali and his family so deeply. Under the dictatorship, Internet access was also tightly restricted and the news media was completely under the control of Ben Ali and his cronies.

On Jan. 31, the European Union froze the assets of the ousted president and his wife, while Tunisia has issued an international arrest warrant for Ben Ali, accusing him of taking money out of the country illegally. Swiss prosecutors have also launched a money-laundering investigation into accounts belonging to Ben Ali, while prosecutors in Paris are probing the family’s sizeable assets in France.

Meanwhile, turmoil continues to rock the tiny nation. Authorities are still dismantling traces of the Ben Ali regime, which had tentacles in much of Tunisian society, from the police to various industrial sectors. That includes purging officials connected with the former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally. But the changes aren’t taking place fast enough for many Tunisians, and the caretaker government is struggling to quell the ongoing protests.

Which is all the more the reason why the world should not abandon the country that sparked revolutionary change in Arab society, according to Ben Ayed.

“In the short term, government expenditures will increase because of food subsidies and the creation of new jobs to meet the challenges of college graduates,” he told The Diplomat. “We will rely on help from the U.S. and the Europeans in order to get through 2011. It will be a critical year. The transitional government needs money fast in order to restart the economy. If we meet these critical challenges, we will protect the revolution.”

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