The decline of Tunisia: plummeting revenues; growing insecurity

The decline of Tunisia: plummeting revenues; growing insecurity
Comment: The Tunisian state is in free-fall with a powerless president, an increased threat of militant groups, economic struggles and dangerous regional upheaval, argues Jean-Pierre Sereni.
6 min read
19 Mar, 2016
Protest in Tunis at the independence celebration, 12 March 2012 [DR]
The restoration of the state had been a central theme of Beji Caid Essebsi's 2014 electoral campaign. 

But for a year now, the president has been witnessing the decline of the Tunisian state, powerless to act - and threatened by stiff competition from his rivals, ready and willing to take his place.

Not so long ago, the state played an important role in the ideology of the national movement that won the battle for independence: the people counted on it to unite them, to bring together "the dust of tribes and individual identities", bequeathed by the French protectorate, according to the famous words of Habib Bourguiba, founder of the Tunisian Republic.

After independence, the national state became the architect of the young nation.

State intervention touched on all spheres of life, trying to control everything.

Increasingly it intervened with the economy and culture, and did not hesitate to interfere in customs and traditions, even in peoples' personal lives, from mosques to birth-control as well as food access and the wearing of the veil.

Six decades later, after many failures and successes, the benefits of which often went to others, the state is under attack from all sides.

This constitutes a spectacular turn of events in comparison with the first months that followed the revolution of January 2011, when many feared a return to the authoritarian police state of ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

The feeling is growing now that the state is absent, or powerless to take up its responsibilities.

Police and justice paralysed

The state has lost its monopoly on restrictions. Increasingly aggressive groups are forming armed opposition to the military and causing the police to flee.

The threat of terrorism has become a nightmare for hotel owners and travel agencies who are witnessing its ruinous effect on tourism, once of the stronghold of the Tunisian economy.

The security response is hesitant to say the least.

The interior ministry, which is supposed to represent security, has seen incessant battles between clans.

Upsets among ministers and directors of its departments have become a daily occurrence, free trade unionism - one of the victories after Ben Ali - has been perverted into narrow corporatism, while police violence continues to go unpunished in police stations and National Guard posts.

Property, private or public, is no longer respected

Justice, held in the hands of the judges of the former regime, is paralysed, caught between a Constitution that brings basic freedoms and fundamental rights, and the repressive pre-2011 laws which are still in force - and will remain so as long as the deputies do nothing to reform them.

It is not just the issue of security that is under scrutiny.

Increasingly, public order is violated with no reaction from the authorities.

Property, private or public, is no longer respected, to the great misfortune of today's investments and tomorrow's jobs.

In the Kerkennah Islands, about 100 unemployed locals occupy the oil wells of an Irish company every other day, interrupting production, and seeking payment in exchange for nothing.

The authorities have not intervened for two years and the company is preparing to leave, following in the footsteps of the Italians from ENI who discovered Tunisian oil at the beginning of the 1960s.

After decades of persuasion on the part of pre-2011 governments, Shell, the other big name in the oil and gas industry, is withdrawing.

As a result, it will likely be necessary to import half of the country's oil and gas consumption on credit.

Regional chaos

In the region of Gafsa, where the ground contains phosphate - the country's only mineral wealth, production has been reduced to a quarter of previous levels, while the number of personnel has quadrupled.

For the past five years, jobseekers have taken turns to block excavation sites or the Gafsa-Sfax railway.

Special documentary: Tunisia - the phosphate curse

They are still waiting for a regional policy to be implemented that would create opportunities for the thousands of jobseekers in this sensitive border region.

A sector that was once one of the drivers of the Tunisian economy, along with tourism and manufacturing, has become a drain on resources that is ruining the public purse.

As far as a lack of civic spirit is concerned, individuals are equally responsible.

Those who still pay their electricity, water, gas bills or train tickets are few and far between.

The state companies providing these public services are sinking inexorably into deficit and the Tunisian Company of Electricity and Gas [STEG] had take out an emergency loan from an African bank in order to maintain services and stop the country being plunged into darkness.

Illegal construction is popping up in unlikely places without the slightest concern for urban planning regulations, and often encroach on public areas.

Road closures lasting a few hours or more are now commonplace, and entirely futile.

In Kebili, the main road to the south has been blocked by villagers who are unable to agree on the boundaries of their two communes.

This time, intervention came not from the state, but the trade unions.

The Federal Secretary of the General Union of Tunisian Workers [UGTT] is putting in place a security service and traffic is beginning to resume.

The taxation threat

Taxation is the most pernicious threat the state is facing. According to the ministry for finance, more than half of GDP [about $50 to $60 billion] comes from the informal sector, escaping the Tunisian tax authority.

Social security contributions go unpaid and local production is destroyed.

Ben Gardane on the Libyan border is the entry point for much of this illicit trade, and wares are spread along the roadsides all the way to Tunis with total impunity.

The merchandise arrives in the Libyan port of Misrata and piles up in enormous 38-tonne trucks that cross the border unencumbered, paying a tax of just 50 dinars [around $25].

They continue up to Kairouan, supplying shacks and stands along the way with goods, or exchanging petrol and subsidised Tunisian milk for ever-more sophisticated products manufactured in Asia.

About 60 wholesalers dictate the laws on this unusual market, and half a dozen others run the equally profitable black market in currency.

Incidentally, the two major sources of revenue for the Tunisian budget are feeling the heat: customs duties and VAT, along with income tax deducted at source, are the main resources of the Tunisian treasury, which is now condemned to begging abroad to balance the books at the end of each month.

The threat of a handover from the state to the mafia may well be cause for concern

A dangerous imbalance is taking hold.

On one side is a cash-strapped state that is losing its ability to take control, and on the other, a mafia which is accruing wealth, kitting itself out with 4x4s, recruiting henchmen, buying arms - including rocket-launchers - and communicating with its suppliers and accomplices via satellite. The threat of a handover from the state to the mafia may well be cause for concern.

Prior to 2011, public services, reputed for their good work, had already suffered from legal arrangements with the ex-ruling Trabelsi family.

Blanket recruitment of militants and of parents of martyrs of the revolution - who perhaps made up for in loyalty what they lacked in ability - did nothing to improve the situation.

The sweeping reforms on which rests the future of 10 million Tunisians are today in disarray.

The machinations of bureaucracy appear incapable of providing a political class, obsessed with maintaining its own power, with the ideas and figureheads necessary for making any attempt to rally.

In its absence, will society show some initiative?

Jean-Pierre Sereni is a journalist and author, speicalising in north Africa and the Gulf. Follow him on Twitter: @jeanpieeresrn

This is an edited translation, originally published in French by our partners at OrientXXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.