Interview “The State does not yet know how to work with these new forms of citizenship that express themselves”
Economist Hakim Ben Hamm Ouda, former finance minister (2014-2015), takes a “contrasted” look at the socio-economic situation that prevails in Tunisia, eight years after the revolution.
What is your assessment of the socio-political situation in Tunisia, eight years after the revolution?
I have to say, I was on January 14th in the street. It is a tradition in Tunisia, people celebrate this anniversary, this year again, even if the fervor was not the same, we still felt the joy of meeting for this anniversary. From where a contrasted look. We have had some very important changes, in terms of the transition to democracy, pluralism, diversity of opinion, freedom of the press, demonstrations … Changes not only observed at the political level . At the cultural level too, with enormous diversity, a significant growth of artistic production in all fields. Attempts to evolve towards laws far ahead in the Arab world such as the duality of inheritance, for greater participation of women in public life. On the other hand, frustration at home and in the population. First of a political order. Political power was supposed to reduce the hegemony of the executive, but we are in a system that is difficult to produce consensus, which results in a great deal of difficulty in having the laws voted and applied. This led to a very important political crisis with important differences between the two heads of the executive, the President of the Republic and the head of government. Frustrations with the economic situation too. Growth that is struggling to resume. Important macroeconomic imbalances. A relatively large trade deficit, a very high level of inflation with a tumble in the currency. Also the frustrations at the level of the population because promises of the revolution have not been kept. A contrasting but therefore optimistic picture of the country’s future and ongoing dynamics.
An optimism encouraged by the economic glimmers, with real signs of recovery, in tourism, agribusiness …
Absolutely, signs of thinning, first at the level of growth. We were at 1.15 in 2015, today we are between 2.7 and 2.8 and we expect 3% in 2019. There is also a relative control of public finances, which we lost in 2015-2016. There is also a significant return of tourism for 2018 and the trend is confirmed in 2019. There are exports of agri-food products, dates, olive oil … Some signs of thinning effectively in the darkening cloud the situation that prevailed between 2015 and 2016 but which also requires vigorous government action and answers to major issues.
You who have been in business, what are the priorities today?
They are four levels. First, it is important to master the major macroeconomic balances. If we witness a relative control of public finances, the foreign trade situation remains disastrous and requires vigorous action. The second level, the return of investment, international and national. There is a certain cautiousness. However, we must have a real restart of investments to boost growth. Third, economic reforms, announced but whose action remains relatively weak. It is important to accelerate the pace of reforms in the banking sector, compensation, public enterprises … The fourth aspect, the social dimension. It is essential to provide answers to social issues, the fight against unemployment and in particular that of young graduates, the marginalization of rural areas and the interior, there is still extreme poverty in Tunisia …
Reforms more difficult to carry out in a context of strong social tensions …
It is true that the social context does not help reforms, especially those with social consequences, but I think that the dialogue is maintained between the central trade union and the government. It remains to find a way to discuss things. The UGTT, for example, is not opposed to the reform of public enterprises, or the fact that subsidies go first and foremost to those who need them … We need to build this consensus and find ways to move forward.
The UGTT, which for some block the reforms and “overflow” of its role as the first union force …
This is one of the specificities of Tunisia. The UGTT has always been an important union, which is not limited to social and trade union issues, unlike other African and Arab countries. Since colonial history, the UGTT has played an important role. And at the moment of the Arab Spring crisis and their shift to violence, the Tunisians were happy to find a strong union to register all the actors towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Yet, this is actually the complexity of the current situation in Tunisia.
This is not the only Tunisian exception. Isn‘t the country, despite the current clouds, creating a new model of participatory democracy, an unprecedented experience not only in the Arab world, in Africa and perhaps beyond, from where the complexity of the current situation?
It is the requirement to create a new model that makes the situation so complex. One of the difficulties of the current government is to deal with complex social issues through solutions inherited from the dynamics of the past. Other countries are experiencing major social crises, including France with yellow vests. The government’s response is narrow in that it seeks to resolve it by increasing the power to have. This is one of the limits. Even if, on the other hand, the current government has proposed a relatively revolutionary law, that of the social security, very important, voted on January 15, which inscribes the universal income and gives a protection, even if at low level, to all the citizens. Something very important. From my point of view, the government is struggling to talk about these issues. It is a communication problem. On the eve of a general strike, no member of the government spoke of this law. There are other examples, the land areas of the state, including agricultural, in some villages, there is a catch by the villagers with the desire to share the income. However, the state does not yet know how to work with these new forms of citizenship that express themselves. It is still a very centralized state, with an administration still very strong, very heavy, which is still struggling to adapt.
and yet, sectors of the advanced industry are experiencing a real boom, such as aeronautics. What are the brakes on a real take-off?
This is a reality that does not date from today, for aeronautics it goes back to the early 2000s. Moreover, we see emerging companies in new technologies, and even world leaders in certain sectors. Companies that owe their development to the know-how and determination of their founder. It is now up to the government to identify priority sectors and identify national champions that need to be accompanied, as Moroccans have done. In the emerging plan of Morocco, 5 priority sectors have been set on which the State has encouraged investments, with incentives, which the Tunisian government has unfortunately not yet done.
The entry into the Comesa offers a real opportunity for Tunisia … even if it seems that it still struggles to assume its Africanity?
I think so … Historically, Tunisia has always been linked to Africa. No need to go back to his name, Ifriqiya that gave his name to the continent. Historical ties that were distended from the 80s, 90s, with the rise of the Mediterranean for all the countries of North Africa, with the free trade agreement with the European Union, which is not a distension of relations between Tunisia and African countries. We are witnessing a return today, in which the installation of the African Development Bank in Tunisia played a very important role, then companies started to settle south of the Sahara, and the institutional then followed. the entry into the Comesa today, which is a major player. I hope that this integration is not going to remain an institutional act but to go towards a greater collaboration, a greater diplomatic, commercial presence … I also express the wish that the countries of North Africa do not see themselves competitors. The sectors in which everyone has comparative advantages are not the same, I take for example, the health industry where Tunisia is far ahead, that its neighbours do not have, while Morocco has a banking and finance very active … These are areas where cooperation is possible including to go on the African market. A hope that may seem difficult to achieve but in the future must be seen as a force to move to other markets. I think that the industrialists, the businessmen already do it, work together to go to Africa. Through years of experience of friendship and common interest.