Photographer: Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images

Angry Tunisians Are Short of Money and Jobs

  • Unrest evokes demonstrations that triggered 2011 Arab Spring
  • Employment minister says jobless must look to private sector

Tunisia plans to hold a donor conference as it seeks to mobilize aid to revive an economy battered by terrorist attacks and contain mounting anger over unemployment.

The government is preparing a five-year economic plan it hopes to present to parliament in March that will include policies to tackle unemployment and regional disparities, issues that helped sparked nationwide protests last week, Employment Minister Zied Ladhari said in an interview. An international conference will follow later in the year, where Tunisia will pitch for aid, loans with concessions, as well as public and private partnerships, he said.

Authorities have been quick to douse the recent unrest, which was triggered by the apparent suicide of a graduate who failed to secure a government job and evoked similar demonstrations that escalated into a national uprising five years ago, and eventually, the Arab Spring. Further sporadic violence is likely if the government fails to boost growth and lower unemployment, the Eurasia Group said in an e-mailed note on Wednesday.

“After the revolution, Tunisia made remarkable progress in terms of the political process,” Ladhari said on Monday. But “we are aware that on the economic and social front, we have major challenges and high expectations from the people.”

IMF Help

Tunisia is also in talks with the International Monetary Fund, and Prime Minister Habib Essid said at Davos last week the negotiations would likely yield results by April, without giving details. The amount sought won’t be less than $1.7 billion, Tunisia’s central bank governor has said.

Lack of jobs was a key reason cited for the recent protests -- a nationwide curfew imposed on Jan. 22 was eased this week. Overall unemployment is about 15 percent, compared with 13 percent before the 2011 uprising. The figure rises to 32 percent for university graduates and 31 percent for people aged 15 to 24.

Challenges include a mismatch between what schools and universities teach and the skills required by the labor market, Ladhari said. A ministry stop-gap program, which began on Tuesday, aims to prepare job-seekers for the labor market, initially focusing on 50,000 of the most poor or vulnerable in places like Kasserine, where the recent unrest began.

Graduate Demand

Another is the government’s inability to meet graduate demand for public service jobs, he said. About 770,000 people are already employed by the state, or 23 percent of the national total. About a third of Tunisia’s 612,000 unemployed went to university, with about 60,000 new graduates joining the workforce every year.

The ministry is facilitating loans for people starting new businesses, with an emphasis on the digital economy, Ladhari said. It offered nearly $60 million in 2015 and about 11,000 loans were awarded. This year, it has $75 million to disburse.

“The state can’t absorb them, we are saturated,” said Ladhari. “It’s not a reflex to create a business, you have to explain, promote success stories, talk more about incentives, loans etc., so important work has to be done to promote this new culture. There is a change in the role of the state.”

Economic Rebound

The central bank, which conducted limited monetary easing last year, forecasts growth will rise to 2.5 percent this year from 0.5 percent in 2015. The yield on Tunisia’s $1 billion Eurobonds due 2025 fell 10 basis points, or 0.1 of a percentage point, at 1:24 p.m. in Tunis, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The yield has risen 62 basis points this month.

The government is also preparing a new investment law it hopes will be ready late next month to boost Tunisia’s attractiveness, including more flexibility over money transfers, Development Minister Yassin Ibrahim said in an interview on Wednesday.

Much will depend on Tunisia’s tourism industry, which accounts for about 7 percent of economic output and employs 15 percent of the workforce, according to the IMF. Visitor numbers plummeted following the terrorist attacks last year.

“People thought that after the revolution everything would be fixed, but there’s a distinction between living in a democratic country and living in a prosperous one,” Ladhari said. “It’s up to our people to work, innovate and create -- we are trying to act as enablers, facilitators.”

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