In 2010, Tunisia is due to become part of an EU/North Africa free trade zone. But before that happens, many jobs in the country will be lost and with them, in all probability, the state's political stability. Bernhard Schmid reports
As far as the European Union is concerned, Tunisia could be considered a model country. It was the first of the countries of the Southern Mediterranean rim to conclude a free trade agreement with the EU on 17 July 1995, a full six months before the European-Mediterranean Partnership Conference was held in Barcelona. The provisions of this agreement are due to take full effect by the year 2010.
In political terms too, Tunisia has long been treated as a model country by the nations north of the Mediterranean even though it has been subjected to the uninterrupted authoritarian rule of its state party since its controlled "release" into independence from France in 1956.
Under the rule of Habib Bourguiba, who ruled the country for 30 years before being deposed by the incumbent president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 1987, the country was governed by a pro-modernisation elite that was drawn from the ranks of the native bourgeoisie in the period that immediately followed independence.
This era of top-down modernisation granted Tunisian women in particular social rights such as the right to abortion as early as the late 1950s; French women only officially gained this right fifteen years later.
A police state that pays lip service
Today, on the other hand, the police state regime still bolsters up its legitimation with these achievements and argues that widespread repression is necessary to defend them against a potential Islamist threat.
However, while regularly paying lip service to the "rights of Tunisian women" and using these rights to justify its existence, the regime nips any burgeoning independent women's groups or movements firmly in the bud.
The same applies to every other form of public democracy. All that remains of the former development dictatorship under Bourguiba is the mafia-like dominance of two or three large family clans that unashamedly battle it out for the material gems available.
One of these clans is the extended family of Ben Ali himself, which includes his ten brothers and sisters. This branch of the family is mainly active on the black market and is involved in drugs, smuggling, and illegal imports.
Another is the large family of his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser who Ben Ali met in the 1980s. Her family is renowned for its special strain of greed. The Trabelsis originally had no money, but have been able to build up a fortune on the basis of loans that they have secured since Leila's marriage to the president. They now control the only privately-owned radio station in the country, Tunisia's most important airline and hotel chain (Carthago), and the marketing of computer products and household appliances.
Yet another such family is the Chiboub clan, which is headed by Slim Chiboub, president of the country's largest football club and the husband of one of Ben Ali's daughters from his first marriage.
In this way, "politics" and business remain predominantly a family matter in official Tunisia. These clans carve up among themselves the recently privatised state-owned companies and the import licences for Fiat, Audi, VW, and Mercedes vehicles that were recently sold by the state.
Stability through economic growth
Parts of the Tunisian bourgeoisie and middle classes can do nothing but choke down their fury at such brazen nepotism. But to date, the stability of the Tunisian police state and the leaden weight of repression has been secured by the fact that the average Tunisian is relatively well off; or so it seems.
While Tunisia's peripheries in the South and West are clearly underdeveloped, a manifest mass poverty such as the one that oppresses so many in Algeria or Egypt has been unknown here for quite some time.
According to official statistics, 60 per cent of Tunisians belong to a "broad middle class" that is portrayed as the basis of the country's political and social stability. The material basis for this stability is supplied by the growth of the textile industry, which posted high growth rates between 1997 and 2001 in particular.
At its current level of 3,500 Tunisian dinar (€ 2,275), the annual average income in Tunisia is higher than in Morocco, Algeria, or Egypt.
The limits of growth
Nevertheless, the Tunisian formula – authoritarian political control plus continuous growth equals stability – has long since reached its limits.
According to official figures, a good 16 per cent of the Tunisian population is unemployed; other sources, however, put this figure at over 20 per cent. At the same time, there is no unemployment benefit or assistance, but instead one-off payments in the form of redundancy payments, which are paid for by social insurance.
What's worse, 68 per cent of job-seekers are younger than 30 years of age, and two-thirds of them have at least a school leaving certificate if not a university degree. This means that the jobs market is saturated and has nothing to offer the younger generations.
Unlike neighbouring Algeria and Libya, Tunisia has no oil reserves. This is why it has focussed on economic niches for quite some time. These niches include the textile industry, which is moving away from Europe, and the production of accessories, such as the manufacture of seat covers for the European automobile supplies industry.
Add to this tourism and the related services sectors. For a time, the focus shifted to the production of electronic components. However, Tunisia soon began to feel the heat of competition from the "even cheaper" East Asian industry.
But now, other sectors of the Tunisian economy are facing similar threats in the guise of the consequences of the changes in the international division of labour, otherwise known as "globalisation". To compound matters, the country is particularly fragile because of its heavy dependence on its links to the world market.
Higher "level of openness"
Bichara Khader, the publisher of a collection of essays entitled "The European-Mediterranean Partnership from the Point of View of the South" (Paris, 2001), calculated a "level of openness" indicator for the economies of several countries by relating the sum of imports and exports to the gross national product.
As an economic indicator, the results can be considered relatively valuable. According to this system, the "level of openness" for Mexico is 22 per cent, Morocco 39 per cent, Algeria 43 per cent, and Tunisia as much as 82 per cent.
With a population of 10 million, Tunisia's domestic market is relatively small. But above all, all South-South economic integration has been neglected in favour of the orientation towards the economies of the North. At the start of the decade, 70 per cent of Tunisia's foreign trade was with the EU.
On the other hand, only 2 per cent of all of Tunisia's legal exports go to its biggest neighbour by far, Algeria. In short, while the Tunisian economy is in many ways cartelized, it is completely unprotected from the competitive mechanisms of the world market.
Threat from China
The Multi-Fibre Agreement, an international economic agreement that guaranteed textile exporters specific import quotas for the so-called western industrialised nations, expires at the end of 2004.
When it does, smaller export nations like Tunisia risk being steam-rollered by China's mass production processes. In fact, according to the business press in France, Tunisia is one of the ten countries in the world that is "most under threat" in this regard.
Tunisia's textile business is responsible for 50 per cent of the country's export yield and 250,000 jobs, that's about half of all industrial jobs in the country.
The next blow to the Tunisian economy will be dealt in 2008 when the country will be obliged to lower its trade barriers as part of its free trade agreement with the European Union.
Free trade zone with the EU
The aim is to create a free trade zone comprising the EU and its southern neighbours by the year 2010. Morocco (1996) and Algeria (2002) have also concluded similar association agreements with the EU.
Thus far the Tunisian economy has benefited from the consequences of the agreement, especially because it facilitated exportation of products to the EU, which prompted certain economic sectors to (temporarily?) set up shop in the country.
However, from 2008, Tunisia must open up its market and lower its protective tariffs, which have to date protected local production facilities against over-powerful economic competition from the North.
The World Bank predicts that these changes will result in the loss of at least 100,000 jobs. If that is the case, we could be facing the end of Tunisia's much-feted stability.
© Qantara.de 2004
Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan