Nawaat: Do recent protests represent yet another crisis caused by the International Monetary Fund’s prescribed austerity measures?

Hamza Meddeb: The grace period is over. Room for financial manoeuvres is gradually shrinking as the debt burden grows. Today, debt service stands at 22% of the budget. According to the Tunisian Observatory of Economy, debt rose from 41% of the GDP in 2010 to 71% of the GDP in 2018. In spite of these facts, none of the choices that might have been made nor arbitrations that might have been carried out after 2011 ever took place. Insiders (unions, corporations, businessmen) were able to renegotiate and improve their situations at the expense of outsiders (poor urban areas, disenfranchised regions, politically and economically marginalized populations, etc.) once again pushed to the margins. The absence of fiscal justice and more generally of courageous and ground-breaking economic choices explains why it is always outsiders who pay the price.

Why were these choices not made?

After Ben Ali’s departure, we thought that the socio-economic question would impose itself on the political agenda. But the opposite occurred, and the question has been pushed on the back burner. After 2011, the urgency of establishing rules for political change took precedence. The division that followed between Islamists and secularists and the quarrels over identity monopolized debates. Thus began a phase of renegotiation between political parties. Islamists attempted to reintegrate into both society and the political scene. Meanwhile, the former regime hoped to make a come back while other parties were busy playing political games. No parties had a clear economic vision, and all were unexperienced in government. Needless to say that politics occupied center stage during this period. Afterwards came the elaboration of the constitution, when the fight over the redistribution of power took precedence over the redistribution of wealth, even though the latter had been at the heart of uprising. On a more fundamental level, consecutive governments since 2011 were incapable of making important social and economic decisions for fear of alienating three essential forces in the country. These are: the UGTT, a central social actor that has always played a political role and which has not ceased to demand higher wages since 2011; the administration, perceived by consecutive governments since 2011 to be a vestige of the former regime and to be capable of blocking their decisions; lastly, businessmen, who form an important and influential interest group in the media and who have tried to protect their pocketbooks and privileges in a new and uncertain context.

What about a development plan? Has there been one over the past few years?

What is quite remarkable about Tunisia is that after a revolution whose roots lie in the obsolescence of the economic model, there was no reflection whatsoever about what economic development model to adopt. The first development plan after the revolution came in 2016. It was the Tunisia 2016-2020 project. The truth is, the economic question has never been a priority. The government has settled for dilatory measures, stealing time to ultimately do nothing.

People often believe that to elaborate a good development model, we just need to lock up some experts in one room until they come up with a plan. But that’s not it at all. First of all, this conversation must include everyone: economic and social actors, unions, corporations and most of all, politicians. We must review economic priorities and above all escape the Ben Ali regime’s political economy which was centered on the creation and protection of different kinds of revenues, on the clientelist management of the social groups who benefit from them and on the perversion of the rule of law. We should be thinking about creating jobs, diversifying the economy and reforming education. Changing the development model requires time and legitimacy. It is not a technical operation, it is political, and because it is political, it must mobilize people, make them dream, tell those who have been excluded that it will try to include them. In Tunisia’s case, this means recognizing the two major fractures across the country. These fractures are social and regional, and their existence is no accident. They are the product of the state’s trajectory.

Another essential area where nothing has been done: reform of the state. If in the 1950’s or 1960’s the state was a powerful employer and developer, it has now become for many a burden. It is incapable of managing the complexity of Tunisian society, and even less of coming up with solutions for society’s problems. During the Ben Ali era, the contradictions of Tunisian society were managed through the police, through fear, threats, repression, compromise and unequal, clientelist regulation. Moreover, the regime’s police tactics were more than just a tendency of the elites in power: in fact, they were a product of the failure to address society’s contradictions. Resolving these contradictions would have meant making choices, putting an end to profits and privileges, pushing certain social groups to feel the cost of change. When these contradictions began to explode in 2008, the repressive machine overheated and finally broke down in 2011. Today, we are witnessing the exacerbation of these contradictions, but also the state’s inability to transform the security solution. Indeed, this option is not a solution anymore, because people are no longer afraid.

In your view, which state reforms are the most important?

For a large proportion of the population, the state is disconnected and unavailable. In certain regions, there are no hospitals, there is no infrastructure, no available public services. As a result, the perception of state is limited to law enforcement. However, at the same time, demands for economic and social inclusion are addressed to the state, a sign that there is still a strong desire here. It is fundamental to respond to this desire not through the state’s disengagement but, to quote Philippe Aghion, with “more state but in other ways”. We must reinvent the state in Tunisia, and this involves first and foremost the reform of territorial governance. In this sense, the long-delayed decentralization process is essential. The authorities refuse to abandon the model of centralized governance where society’s unity is preserved by the state. The common belief is that if decision-making is delegated to the different regions, society will explode, and the country will be torn apart. More broadly, we need to think of ways to rearticulate the state to society so that it plays its part in promoting development and investment in marginalized regions. Today, the state, for political and economic reasons, “does” in certain regions, while it “lets do” in others. The latter, “laisser-faire”, territories are growing. In such regions, the state does not govern directly, but delegates to clientelist networks such as unions, businesses and also tribal clans. This mode of governance exacerbates regional and social fractures and creates a feeling of second-class citizenship among parts of the population.

We also need reform at the public policy level. In Tunisia, public policies are essentially sectorial and do not take into account the needs and assets of each territory, and even less so the complementarity of different sectors. A crucial question here will be to promote the private sector in the country’s interior regions, where we often witness a failing public sector and the strong presence of the informal sector. The state must be able to play the role of investor but also driver of development. This requires a middle and long-term vision, which unfortunately remains absent still today.

Has the “be patient and wait” method finally reached its limits?

Buying time is a strategy which, politically speaking, has limits. Today we see that these politics have become disfunctional. Marginalized populations have become impatient and are revolting. Moreover, the funds available for procrastination measures are disappearing with the end of the grace period designated by international finance agencies.

Today, Tunisia’s social concerns and the redistribution of wealth have been pushed front and center. Until now, successive governments have operated by implementing temporary measures, hadhayer contracts and job creation mechanisms (Amal, Forsati, Ennajem, etc.), but these policies have only exacerbated anger and feelings of exclusion. The question of hadhayer contracts for instance, which employ 60,000 people, demands attention. The government has promised to recruit these individuals into public service, but where and how? Whether or not they are recruited, the decision has a political and economic cost that political leaders must assume. We are reaching the moment of truth. It seems however that the political class wants to buy more time and postpone all of this until 2019 after presidential and parliamentary elections. I think it will be hard for them to hold until then, even if we are seeing a sort of consensus forming between Nidaa Tounes, Ennahdha, the UTICA and the UGTT to not push contradictions any further and to try and keep things as they are for now. But not taking a decision has a significant political, social and economic cost which the political coalition will do its best not to assume. The Carthage Agreement must be understood in this light, as a way of mutualizing failure.

Has the democratic transition paved the way for neoliberalism in Tunisia?

If we understand neoliberalism as a form of indirect governance where the state delegates some of its prerogatives to the market and to private actors, the neoliberal tendency in Tunisia began a long time ago. What has taken place since 2011 is the strengthening of this neoliberal option: a profusion of charity organizations which replace the state’s failed social policies, and the growth of private education (primary, secondary and superior) as the quality of public education has decreased. Access to public services is impossible in entire regions because they simply do not exist. Take public health for instance: some places do not have access to an adequate hospital, forcing people to travel and thus pay for access to hospitals in big cities. In Tataouine, Kairouan and elsewhere, many women have died in childbirth as a result. Drinkable water is becoming a commodity across the country because of the deterioration in the quality of tap water. Micro-credit institutions, which are the veritable banks of the poor, are growing their customer bases with the pauperization of the middle class.

There is no shortage of examples that show how the state has disengaged and left private actors to assume its responsibilities. It is not political transition itself which intensified the neoliberal tendency, but rather the way the transition was managed that is the cause. And it is fundamental rights that are the most affected by this trend.

Paradoxically, this evolution did not take place in a context of austerity. On the contrary, it coincided with massive financial assistance since 2011. Between 2011 and 2015, Tunisia received the equivalent of 15% of its GDP in loans, donations and other forms of financial assistance. The problem is that this money has not been used to renew the development model, and instead has prioritized short-term fixes. The effects of this choice are beginning to be felt. Management of the economy can be summed up as a policy of waiting : make people wait while we postpone making difficult decisions.

Recent protests have seen a surge in youth participation, providing a pretext for many to project their anger onto young people, who are portrayed as “violent” and “undisciplined”. Why are young people the target of such anger?

We often present rebellious “youth” as a biological, natural fact. It is as if we were saying, “They have acne, they rebel, it’s the age. It’s normal”. But the truth is, young people today are kept in a position of social subalternity. They are the last to arrive on the job market, which excludes them from economic security. The problem is simple really: last come, last served. If, in addition to being young, you are from Metlaoui, Tataouine or Kasserine, the state does not want or is not able to hire you, and your only recourse is the informal sector, there are plenty of reasons for you to be angry. We are faced with a system that keeps young people at the margins, especially when they are from lower classes. All you have to do is look at the number of school dropouts, around 70,000 per year. The state has nothing to offer to these young people, neither training nor a future.

*« L’Etat d’injustice au Maghreb : Maroc et Tunisie » by Irène Bono, Béatrice Hibou, Hamza Meddeb & Mohamed Tozy, octobre 2015, éditions Karthala