Can Tunisia’s Government Make Necessary Reforms in the Face of Popular Demonstrations?

Last summer, Tunisia’s parliament ousted former Prime Minister Habib Essid, a vote of no-confidence, as President Beji Caid Essebsi announced his intent to form a new unity government. He appointed Youssef Chahed, a little known young technocrat, to replace Essid. Chahed was presented as a fresh-faced, “courageous alternative” who would be better situated to push through tough economic reforms and win the approval of Tunisia’s dissatisfied youth. 

However, almost a year later, the Chahed government is faltering. Progress on critical economic reforms has been slow, and protests in recent months by workers’ unions and those in the country’s neglected interior regions threaten new internal destabilization. Since the revolution, Tunisia has prioritized political reforms over necessary but unpopular economic ones. The Chahed government, having made little progress on economic measures over the past year, is now in a bind, as it tries to appease a public that has little patience left.

Chahed’s government witnessed protests shortly after the premier’s appointment and continued to struggle with unrest throughout the country. Immediately after winning a vote of confidence in August, Chahed warned that the government would have to impose austerity measures, including dismissing public sector workers and increasing taxes, if the country’s economic situation did not improve. A raft of protests followed in 2016, and continued into this year.

In October 2016, protests over jobs in Gafsa in the center of the country shut down two key phosphate mines and disrupted output for months. The powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) also clashed with the government’s plan to freeze public wage increases in an effort to control the country’s budget deficit and threatened to hold a general strike. Ultimately, a two-year agreement on salary increases for public sector workers was reached. Yet public sector salaries, which amount to about 13.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, remain a problem for the government. A month later, on the sixth anniversary of the country’s 2011 revolution, demonstrators clashed with police as protests in the southern town of Ben Guardene spread to other areas including Sidi Bouzid, Meknassi, and Gafsa. Unemployed Tunisians and workers in the country’s interior were not the only ones demonstrating. Thousands of Tunisia lawyers demonstrated in front of Chahed’s office in late 2016 against new taxes on certain professions. Some demanded Chahed’s resignation.

Most recently, protests erupted in early April in Kef and Tataouine demanding jobs and expressing dissatisfaction with the government’s development projects and continued marginalization. In Tataouine, both the UGTT and the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts supported a general strike. Deputy Chief of the UGTT’s regional office in the northeast Kamel Saihi said the area has been “ignored by successive governments since the revolution, and [current Prime Minister] Youssef Chahed did the same thing.”

Chahed and several government ministers visited Tatatouine amid the general strike to try to quell the protests and meet with civil society representatives. At a town hall meeting, Chahed promised to create two thousand jobs in the region “almost immediately,” but he was booed off the stage. Days later, the prime minister appointed a new governor of Tatatouine, Mohamed Ali Barhoumi, who expressed his determination to “bring about the necessary improvements and support to the aspirations of dissatisfied young people within the limits of the state’s means.” Yet tensions between the government and the protesters remain. Government Spokesman Iyed Dahmani said the government was ready to “respond firmly” to protests that violate the law and paralyze certain sectors.

The protests make clear that successive post-revolutionary governments continue to face difficulties in enacting necessary but difficult economic reforms. In April 2016, Tunisia reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a $2.8 billion four-year extended fund facility. The program aims to help Tunisia achieve inclusive growth by consolidating macroeconomic stability, reforming public institutions, and improving the business climate. However, in December the IMF delayed the release of a second tranche of the loan due to a lack of progress on reforms, including on a public sector wage bill. In response, Finance Minister Lamia Zribi announced the acceleration of required IMF-reforms, including the cutting of 10,000 public sector jobs and sales of stakes in three-state own banks. A government official also said that Tunis was drafting an “economic emergency” bill that would bypass bureaucratic hurdles and speed up large-scale projects.

Finally, following an IMF delegation visit to Tunisia last month, the IMF agreed to release the next tranche of $320 million of the loan. In a statement, the Fund said growth in 2017 is expected to double to 2.3 percent “but will remain too low to significantly reduce unemployment, especially in the interior regions and among the youth.” Although this should serve as a warning to the government, Chahed, overstated the outlook, telling state television that the economy would start to regain momentum this year.

There are signs that Chahed is seeking to address public dissatisfaction with his government. On April 30, he sacked Finance Minister Lamia Zribi, who had come under fire saying that the central bank would reduce its interventions to steadily weaken the value of the dinar, a measure supported by the IMF. Current Minister of Investment Fadhel Abdelkafi, who was named as Acting Minister of Finance, is likely to face similar pressures from both the IMF and Tunisia’s political arena over critical reforms. It is also worth noting that upon the formation of Chahed’s new government last year, Zribi’s appointment as the country’s first female finance minister was in part presented as reflecting his efforts to form a more inclusive government. 

Meanwhile, the government faces a challenge with a controversial economic reconciliation bill that Essebsi proposed in 2015. While debate over the bill was postponed over widespread criticism of corruption, the parliament finally debated the bill last week. The bill is a flashpoint in Tunisia’s political arena and many have taken the streets to protest corruption and what they fear is a return to the old regime’s practices. Protests against the bill could very well escalate amid these fears, widespread economic grievances, and political divisions. 

Tunisia’s government is suffering from a deficit of public trust, as many Tunisians feel that successive governments have failed to deliver on promises made after the revolution. The Chahed government, billed as an injection of fresh life into the government, has unsurprisingly come up against the same challenges as its predecessors, particularly in the realm of economic growth and reforms. Tunisia’s transition has been slow going and painful, but continuing with economic reforms is the only way forward. Continued appeasement on issues such as public sector wages will only deepen the financial hole. It will take time for Tunisians to experience job growth and improved economic conditions. In the meantime, Chahed’s government must take efforts to prove that it can deliver. Otherwise, we may witness another vote of no confidence in Tunisia this summer. 

Elissa Miller is an assistant director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Photo: Tunisians demonstrate against a bill that would protect from prosecution those accused of corruption, on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, Tunisia April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi