Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Managing" the Arab Spring's economic woes

At the heart of the so-called ‘Arab Spring,’ post-revolution Tunisia is still beset by the problem of a young, unemployed, and educated population. This is particularly pronounced in the less developed interior of the country in towns like Sidi Bouzid, where a young vegetable seller by the name of Muhammad Bou Azzizi first ignited the Arab spring by an act of self immolation.

“The biggest challenge now is to manage expectations, the expectation of the young population, those among them who are unemployed,” said interim Tunisian Finance Minister Jalloul Ayed, before heading to Washington for the annual IMF/World Bank meetings.

Many Tunisians see unemployment as the biggest challenge to the revolution. Countrywide, unemployment rose from 14 percent in 2010, to 19 percent by the end of July, when new graduates and Tunisians fleeing the violence in neighboring Libya flooded the job market. In the interior of the country, unemployment runs upwards of 18 percent, with the number rising to between 31 and 48 percent among graduates, according to government figures.

“Prosperity consolidates democracy,” says Ayed. “Tangible prosperity: better living conditions, jobs for the unemployed, better prospects for the country, so that particularly the young population starts to see the light at the end of the tunnel and that they feel comfortable and confident about their future.”

However, those who remain unemployed have not been waiting patiently for October 23, when elections will be held for a constituent assembly that will write Tunisia’s new constitution. Last week, five unemployed teachers attempted a coordinated suicide in the southern town of Kasserine, hanging themselves from nooses tied to a goal post before onlookers quickly took them down and transported them to a hospital. The National Council for Liberty in Tunisia, a non-governmental organization that works closely with activists in Kasserine, say that the five made their suicide attempt after going on a hunger strike for 5 days, calling on the interim education minister and the prime minister to change the law that prevents people over the age of 40 from entering the public sector. Their calls were ignored.

Meanwhile, this month saw the repeated imposition and lifting of curfews in the southern towns of Sbeitla, and Sidi Bouzid as well as Kasserine after demonstrations and sometimes violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces. Here again, unemployment was the main catalyst of unrest.

Before leaving for Washington, Ayed announced the five year “Jasmine Economic and Social Plan,” which outlines a medium and long term solution to Tunisia’s economic woes by creating one million jobs while seeking to address the “short term economic and social emergency issues” to satisfy the growing impatience among Tunisia’s population. Financing for the plan is dependent to a great extent on the $38 billion international donor aid promised by the G8 under the May 27 Deauville partnership to help Arab countries in their transition to free and democratic societies. None of that money has yet been received.

The international aid, which was initially promised to Egypt and Tunisia, must now be expanded to cover Jordan, Morocco and possibly Libya following a decision at a G8 summit in Marseille earlier this month. Ayed says that he is confident that they “really mean to provide that support,” even though the G8 countries “haven’t touched the bilateral” figures, which he says are determined by their political relationship with Tunisia. He says he wouldn’t be surprised if specifics of the plan are discussed at the Washington meetings.

However, many young Tunisians remain wary of the country’s future economic prospects. At a rally early this month in front of interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi’s office in downtown Tunis, several young university students left their classrooms to join policemen protesting the decision to ban police unions from holding strikes. A university student named Iskander said he was worried that the elections would not change anything. Iskander pointed to his pocket where the top of a green Tunisian passport was visible.

“I already have my visa for Italy ready,” he said.

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