New Challenges and Prospects for Progressive Politics in Tunisia and Europe

Venue: El Teatro, Tunis
Organization: Fondation Gabriel Péri (Paris), Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Brüssel, l’Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates (ATFD), l’Association des femmes tunisiennes pour la recherche sur le développement (AFTURD).
Languages: French, German
Contact: Renato Sabbadini, Tel. +32 (0)2738 7661

Défis et perspectives nouvelles pour les progressistes de Tunisie et d'Europe, 26-27 mars 2012 - El Teatro, Tunis - En partenariat avec la Fondation Rosa Luxemburg (Allemagne), l’Association tunisienne des femmes démocrates (ATFD) et l’Association des femmes tunisiennes pour la recherche sur le développement (AFTURD).

La FGP et ses partenaires, la RLS, l’ATFD et l’AFTURD, invitent les représentants progressistes des forces politiques et sociales de Tunisie, les chercheurs et les acteurs associatifs de défense des droits des citoyens à un colloque de deux jours pour engager un dialogue sur le processus en cours en Tunisie et ses perspectives.

Les rapports entre mouvement social et changement politique tels qu’ils se sont exprimés dans la « révolution tunisienne » et continuent de s’inventer dans la Tunisie de l’après Ben Ali, constituent un premier axe de réflexion. Les revendications qui ont abouti au départ du dictateur trouvent leur racine dans le mécontentement social et les difficultés économiques. Mais elles s’articulent de façon fondamentale à l’exigence d’un changement politique. Les femmes, dont le statut et les droits avancés sont sources de fierté, et la jeunesse subissent un chômage de masse, dans une société où l’exercice de la citoyenneté était jusqu’à récemment limité ou impossible. Ils jouent ainsi par leur engagement, un rôle déterminant dans ce processus.

L’analyse du processus de démocratisation tel que mis en oeuvre à travers le déroulement des premières élections libres du 23 octobre, l’assemblée constituante, et l’instauration difficile d’un pluralisme des médias, tentera de répondre à la question suivante : Quels sont les changements politiques susceptibles de répondre aux aspirations ? Comment élaborer une constitution à la hauteur des exigences démocratiques et de justice sociale ? Comment garantir une expression libre et indépendante ?

Le colloque s’intéressera aussi aux priorités d’un développement qui profite réellement à toute la population de Tunisie. La lutte contre les inégalités et la définition de politiques économiques au service d’un développement cohérent profitable aux ruraux et aux urbains, de la côte méditerranéenne et de l’intérieur du pays, constituent les grands défis d’un pays en crise économique.

Dans le même temps, ces enjeux marquent des points de convergence entre citoyens européens et du sud de la méditerranée. L’aspiration à plus d’égalité et à l’émancipation est partie en Tunisie, comme en Egypte, de la contestation des conséquences des politiques néolibérales. En Europe, le rejet du néolibéralisme et du capitalisme financiarisé se traduit aussi par des revendications pour plus d’égalité, de démocratie et de justice sociale. Les relations euro-méditerranéennes dans leurs dimensions politiques, économiques et commerciales doivent prendre cela en compte et contribuer à répondre aux exigences populaires de développement et de démocratie.
Le colloque s’attachera ainsi à débattre des voies d’une refondation du partenariat euro-méditerranéen et à définir ce qui peut être utile pour construire des solidarités en faveur du progrès humain.
Notes on the seminar in English (for French and German see below):
Causes of the economic crisis in Tunisia

Professor Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, professor of Economics at the University of Tunis, active member of the democratic opposition and former chair of the Tunis chapter of Amnesty International, began his speech by identifying two key factors behind the current economic crisis in Tunisia, i.e. the very bad state of education and the poor industrial policies of the countries in the last decades. The combined effect of these two factors has given a rate of growth in Tunisia lower than the one in Morocco for the decade 2000-2010. Alarming is also the number of unemployed among graduate students, which went from 3,000 in 1995, to 5,000 in 2000 and to 50,000 in 2005! This number is expected to grow by 60,000 units a year until 2016. Unemployment touches now 45 to 55% of the population, excluding the non-coastal regions of the country. While the national debt has improved (from 46 billion euro in 2007 to 40 in 2010), the reserve has shrunk (from 100 billion in 2005 to 14 in 2010). The absence of monetary policies has brought an inflation rate of 5.2 % and deficit for 2012 equal to 10%. In addition, the sale of public assets has reduced the borrowing capacity of the state. Only private investment can help improve the situation, provided that by 2013 the country gets a good constitution, holds valid elections and approves a law against corruption.

Sophie Bessis, research director at IRIS, began her speech by drawing the attention to three key facts behind the crisis, i.e. (i) Tunisia does not have natural resources enough to meet the demands of society, (ii) the socialist experience of the Sixties had a negative impact, which pushed the country into adopting an economic model based on small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and (iii) it was this very model which allowed the country to leave poverty in the Seventies. In analyzing the current situation, Sophie Bessis pointed out that: Tunisian universities does not graduate people who can be of real use to the local industry afterwards, while regional unbalances within the country play an important part in the crisis as do the debts contracted in the Eighties, which in turn created the conditions for the rise of a cleptocracy, which was able to counter the difficulties connected with the European crisis only with repression.

Economist Hakim Ben Hammouda, special advisor to the chair of the African Bank for Development, concentrated on the events of 2011 which mark the worsening of the crisis, i.e. (i) the growing number of strikes and social protests, despite the implementation of programmes aimed at increasing the number of employed people, (ii) the lack of foreign investment following the fall of Ben Ali (and despite the lower interest rate), and (iii) the very weak growth, also in once key sectors like phosphate or gas.

Trade unionist Abdellatif Haddad, from Tataouine and former member of the Council for the realization of the revolution goals, reminded the audience of how, to this day, only the coastal-region of the country can be deemed to be developed, while the rest of the country, in particular the South-West region is the result of policies implemented in the last 50 years and failed miserably, despite the resources in the ground (oil, gas, water) which have all the potential for a development of the region. These policies failed in particular due to an excess of centralization and to the fact that the voices of the concerned regions were ignored. Growth and development will be possible in the future only if there is a genuine redistribution of power to the regional governing entities and greater transparency.
Work and employment in the centre of economic and social priorities to escape the crisis

Hédi Sraieb, PhD in development economics, saw behind the current crisis in Tunisia a profound overestimation of politics and an underestimation of economics. There had been indeed a growth rate of 5% for twenty years, which resulted, however, in the creation of an economy with two different speeds and two drivers, i.e. the state and the SME sector, the latter characterized by an emphasis on production which did not translate into investment and was therefore not in condition to take up the challenges of globalization. Universities do not graduate people who can then work in the local industry, though it needs to be said that the latter looks only for labour, rather than specialized workers and employees. Things have hardly changed with the revolution – the economic discourse of these days is not at all adequate to the expectations raised by the revolution, while one third of the tourist sector is precarious and the economy based on estate is an artificial creation.

Chokri Ben Amara, university professor with the research department of the UGTT, points to the fact that the resources allocated for employment in the 2012 budget are insufficient, while unemployment is rising dramatically, from 18.9 % of women and 10 % of men in 2011 to 27.3 % of women and 15 % of men in 2011. Despite the forecast which sees 75,000 to 100,000 people finding a job in the next months, the unemployment rate will remain unchanged. Tunisia has been suffering from a structural crisis since the year 2000. A new development model is needed, where people get paid decent salaries and have the possible of further training for special competences. In other words, Tunisia needs a social economy based on solidarity, where unemployed people are not left to their own devices.

The audience then raised the following issues:

1) Many family-based SMEs do not invest or invest very little, but this does not mean that all SMEs do the same;
2) If Education is the key to the solution to unemployment, is there not the risk, however, of turning universities into mere factories supplying human resources for the industry?
3) Unemployment affects also (and mostly) non graduates: indeed, the growing restriction of EU migration policies have deprived many unemployed people of an opportunity to leave the country and look for a job, thus aggravating the situation in Tunisia;
4) Which lessons can Tunisia draw from the failure of neo-liberal policies?

Hédi Sraieb replied to 1) by stressing that what SMEs now lack is the ability to create jobs on the long term, also because in the current state of strong competition among them, they believe that the only tools at their disposal is the labour cost. Chokri Ben Amara replied to 4) by stressing that Tunisia offers also a very good example of the failure of neo-liberal policies, as privatizations carried out during the dictatorship brought only to the establishment of mafias with strong link to the powers governing the country.

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