On February 27, the Tunisian parliament voted confidence in the new government of Elias Fakhfakh. This followed the failure of Habib Jemli to gain parliamentary confidence after he had been asked to form a government in November 2019, a situation that left Tunisia without a functioning government for over three months.
While the previous government of Youssef Chahed made tremendous progress in creating working democratic institutions, the new government will have to do something much more difficult. It must find a way of addressing the lingering social and economic challenges that brought about the 2010–2011 uprising, such as systemic marginalization of the interior and southern regions of the country, staggeringly high levels of youth unemployment, and rampant corruption. This will take years, if not decades.
In the meantime, the new government, and with it President Qaïs Sa‘id, should seek some short-term wins to boost public confidence. It must then shift its focus to four key areas where it can begin chipping away at the myriad social and economic problems facing Tunisians.
There is significant skepticism that the new government will be able to deliver economic improvement, or even survive a full year (let along a five-year term), given its inexperience and the tremendous fracturing of the political scene. Both the president and prime minister were, until recently, relatively unknown on the political scene. Sa‘id, a law professor without a political party who barely campaigned for the presidency, won the 2019 presidential elections by a wide margin (nearly 73 percent of the vote) in a presidential runoff against the controversial, yet politically-connected, businessman Nabil Qaraoui.
Fakhfakh served as tourism minister and finance minister in the Jebali government of 2012–2014, but has been mostly out of the spotlight over the past five years and won only 0.34 percent of the vote in the 2019 presidential race. And most of the members of Fakhfakh’s government, a hodgepodge of ten different parties and independents, have little to no governing experience.
The new parliament is also highly fractured, with 31 different parties or electoral lists and the top two parties, Ennahda and Qalb Tounes, each receiving only 24 and 18 percent of seats, respectively. This is not surprising in a country with no electoral threshold, but it is a marked departure from the previous parliament, in which the top two parties, Nida’ Tounes and Ennahda, received 40 and 32 percent of the seats, respectively, and included eighteen parties or lists.
Much of the public’s frustration with the political class stems from the inability of democratically-elected figures to deliver positive social and economic change to the Tunisian people. Rates of economic growth have not kept up with rising inflation, which reached 7 percent by the end of 2018. Food prices have increased at a rate of 7.3 percent per year, with vegetable prices increasing by more than 10 percent and milk by more than 9 percent. Additionally, unemployment remains high, particularly among university graduates at 28 percent. Women are disproportionately affected, with 38 percent of female university graduates unemployed.
One of the main drivers of the Tunisian uprising was the socioeconomic disparity between the coastal and interior regions. Today, despite the start of a decentralization process that promises to funnel resources toward these regions, the interior still suffers from high poverty rates. These have reached 31 percent in cities such as Kasserine, Qairouan, and Sidi Bouzid, and include difficulties accessing basic education. Tunisians are also dropping out of school at alarming rates and now only receive 7.1 years of schooling, on average. The quality of the country’s workforce has deteriorated as a consequence, which has made it more difficult for employers to find competent employees. The situation is exacerbated by a decline in the quality of technical and vocational training schools as well as in the quality of the country’s research institutes and the government’s decreasing expenditure on research and development.
Additionally, since the uprising, the country has witnessed an unprecedented brain drain. Ninety-five thousand people have left Tunisia, 84 percent of whom were highly educated. This includes doctors, engineers, computer scientists, and university professors.
Most importantly, despite serious efforts to fight corruption through the establishment of the National Authority for the Fight Against Corruption, Tunisians continue to report high levels of corruption at home. In a 2019 Transparency International survey, 67 percent of the population maintained that corruption had gotten worse over the previous year, and 64 percent believed the government’s efforts to fight it were unsatisfactory.
The new government has a clear mandate to address the socioeconomic challenges plaguing the country. There are four areas where it should focus efforts toward promoting economic growth and stability in the long term: education, macroeconomic stability, infrastructural improvements, and fighting corruption. However, each of these issues will require long-term, systemic changes that will not provide the sort of short-term payoff for which the public is looking. Thus, the government should also identify a few quick fixes in its early days to help build trust.
One critical urgent measure is to combat the rising drop-out rate by providing free transportation to schools in remote areas. Beyond that, the government should focus on modernizing and improving the transportation infrastructure nationwide, with a focus on enabling transit between the coast and the interior.
Another task the government should begin addressing is reforming the education system to bridge the gap between the skills taught and employers’ needs, including technical skills and basic employment skills. Additionally, the Education Ministry and the Higher Education Ministry should work together to invest in research and development beginning in high school to assist young Tunisians in finding jobs at home, but also to encourage innovation and expand critical thinking skills.
On the macroeconomic front, reducing the current trade balance is critically important to strengthen the country’s macroeconomic stability. This could be accomplished through the ratification and implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement between Tunisia and the European Union (EU). The agreement could provide Tunisia with several benefits, but has been hampered by resistance from the far left and the private sector. Once implemented, the agreement would allow Tunisian products to be sold in the large European market, with its 500 million consumers or more. The agreement would also provide the Tunisian government with technical and scientific assistance from the EU to reform, simplify, harmonize, and digitize the trade procedures at customs and other trade agencies. This is likely to enhance the country’s attractiveness to foreign investors.
Tunisia’s new government has a tremendous responsibility to deal with some of the socioeconomic problems that previous governments failed to tackle. To be successful, the government should identify and quickly enact short-term measures to begin bringing positive change to the lives of Tunisia’s most vulnerable citizens and develop a clear communication strategy to help repair the widening gap between the public and elected leaders.
* Hamza Mighri is a Fulbright scholar at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and currently serves as a data analyst for an economic development consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.