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Tunisia's Political Deadlock Fuels Economic Frustration

  • Henry Ridgwell

As the political deadlock in Tunisia continues following the killing of opposition figure Chokri Belaid, there is growing frustration on the streets that little progress is being made in tackling the country’s urgent economic problems.

Tunisia’s revolution was sparked when a fruit seller set himself on fire - an extreme protest against being fined for setting his stall in an illegal place.

Two years later, the dictator is gone but at the market stalls in Tunis the hardship remains. Butcher Mustapha says these days his customers spend less than a dollar a day.

“People can no longer buy a big piece of meat,” he says. “Even chicken is now out of reach for many. It takes 3 or 4 days for me to sell the meat from one sheep,” he said.

Last year Tunisia’s GDP rebounded by 2.7 percent - but high inflation and unemployment weigh on the economy.

The Coficab factory in Tunisia (Henry Ridgwell/VOA)

The Coficab factory in Tunisia (Henry Ridgwell/VOA)

The Coficab factory produces thousands of kilometers of electrical cable every day. Its General Manager Hichem Elloumi - who is also vice president of the Association of Employers - says economic problems have compounded.

“Security is not perfect. Also [there are] social problems in the companies. Also the crisis in the European Union was a big problem for us, as you know that the European Union is our first economical partner,” said Elloumi.

Over 80 percent of Tunisian exports go to the European Union and with economic output shrinking in many of the EU’s biggest economies at the end of 2012, the outlook remains tough.

From the street to the boardroom, many Tunisians complain that politicians spend too much time debating the future instead of tackling Tunisia’s urgent problems.

The assassination of Chokri Belaid has plunged Tunisia deeper into political crisis, says Fadhel Abdelkefi, chairman of the Tunis stock exchange.

“I hope that the politicians will find agreement soon,” he said. “Once that happens, the number of people in the Cabinet must be dramatically cut. And above all, the National Assembly must be given a deadline to say you have ‘x’ months, 2, 3, 4 or 5 months, to finish the constitution, and they must only work on that."

Government spokesperson Samir Dilou says not all the criticism is fair.

“This government has made an effort and realized some positive results,” Dilou said. “But it hasn’t succeeded in other challenges. But everybody is accountable for this. In all democracies, responsibility does not only rest with those who govern, but with all their partners - civil society, the opposition and the private sector.”

Tourism is vital to Tunisia’s economy. Visitor numbers dropped after the revolution but picked up last year.

The 14th century souk in Tunis is one of the city’s top attractions.

Lamp-seller Jamel Bengourbha has seen the impact of the recent troubles on his business.

“The image now in Europe is that Tunisia is a terrorist country. It’s made tourists avoid Tunisia. But we still have hope in the future, God willing,” he said.

Many Tunisians had hoped that the political upheaval of 2011 was part of history. Now they want the politicians to bring a swift end to this latest chapter of unrest.

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