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A real Tunisia

Par Zyad Limam - Publié en avril 2023

The Tunisian crisis seems to have come to a head. President Kais Saied dropped out of sight for days in late March, fueling all sorts of speculation and underscoring the fact that the country has had no Constitutional Court since 2011—despite two successive constitutions calling for its establishment. The stalemate is highly political (the independence of justice) and revealing of Tunisia’s paralysis. Opponents, intellectuals and journalists are in jail. Self-censorship has returned to the country where the Arab Spring began. Inflation has hit 10% since January, wiping out the working and middle classes. Young people, Tunisians or coming from sub-Saharan Africa, risk their lives crossing the sea while the well-to-do jet off to enjoy better lives elsewhere. The state is on the brink of bankruptcy, crushed by haphazard management and a debt of over $40 billion (93% of GDP). For months, the government has been negotiating a two-billion-dollar loan from the IMF, a possible windfall obviously tied to implementing major reforms, which nobody in Tunis seems willing to undertake. All this, while, roughly speaking, there is no way, budgetary wise, to make it until end of the year. Some certainly imagine that perhaps Russia, China, Algeria or a “knight in shining armor” will come to the rescue.

Last but not least, like another particularly depressing symbol, the magnificent Bardo Museum has been inexplicably closed since the July 25, 2021 “coup”, endangering its world-famous Roman mosaics. One could believe that Tunisia has entered a "no future" zone. It seems like there is nothing to do but wait for it to hit rock bottom.

And yet, not! In this 3,000-year-old country, the future remains to be written. Tunisia exists. It has potential. It has an advanced political elite ranging from left to right, from secularists to relatively moderate Islamists, all representative of Tunisia’s diversity. It has respected intellectuals, journalists, writers and artists. And all this richness is clear to anyone with eyes to see.

Turning inward is not an option. Tunisia is ideally located two or three hours from Europe’s key economic centers. It has agreements with the EU, which, granted, could be improved. It has ancient links to Africa, which the migration crisis should not dissolve. It can also take advantage of its “natural orientalism” to bolster its ties with the Gulf countries. Tunisia is a country of natural-born entrepreneurs and traders that boasts doctors, engineers and tech-savvy young people. The diaspora, strongly attached to the country, could quickly mobilize. Civil society is reactive and ambitious. The cultural world does not give in to despair. Tunisia and Tunisians still enjoy a great deal of sympathy around the world. It is a beautiful country and tourism could again become a key industry. There is know-how, experience and strong bones. All it takes are confidence and visibility. In a few years, Tunisia can become an essential platform for services, industries, technology, logistics, healthcare, etc.

And it will get help. The current crisis sadly shows that Tunisia has become too strategically important to fail. It is impossible to let it sink, which would lead to chaos in the heart of the Maghreb and at the gates of Europe. The message is heard loud and clear in Paris, Rome and the headquarters of the European Union in Brussels and the IMF and the World Bank in Washington.

Everything is possible, on one condition: that a degree of political normality is restored. The country of some 13 million people just needs to be well governed, just needs to leverage its energy, free up normal debate, settle past scores, move on from revolutions past and present, look to the future and get down to work. Nothing spectacular, just the norm. Without economic development, a new social pact and stability nothing is possible. And the promises and speeches will collide with a harsh and unforgiving reality.