Tunisia: Promises of a brighter future

Tunisia's nickname in Arabic is "Tunis the Green." It's kind of puzzling if you come here in the summer, when everything is sun-baked, or if you go to the Sahara in the south. But come here during the winter, and you see life exploding out of the ground with a casual but certain fury. The fields are brightly carpeted with tiny yellow flowers I can't identify, orange poppies, and fragrant fennel. This is a fitting time for a revolution.

I've spent a lot of time here chatting with young people - in cafes, on the metro, on the street - and with economists. This much has become clear: one of Tunisia's biggest problems is that its youth have been set up. They've been told, correctly, that education is the way to success. And they bought it. But they were sold a reliable car without a road to drive on.

Education has been a so-called national priority since the '50s under Tunisia's first president/dictator, Habib Borguiba. Recently ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali encouraged more people to go to college the past 10 years by lowering the entry requirements. The young advanced their education in droves. Now about 57 percent of the graduating population has advanced degrees.

But while students were busy studying, the government was not keeping up its end of the bargain. The education system was never modernized. And according to economists, it doesn't sufficiently anticipate the needs of the nation's labor market or the needs of the global market.

Nor did the government promote the knowledge-based economy necessary for these students to flourish. One economist gave this example: The Tunisian government said it wanted to encourage people to go into Information and Communications Technology. How could they think that could possibly have work when that industry is monopolized in Tunisia and Internet access was severely restricted?

The domestic investment climate - usually an engine of growth - suffered tremendously from the parasitism of the ruling family. Stories abound of harassment by the state. If a business does too well, or if it rubs elbows with a political opponent of the regime, it will become a target. The Ministry of Finance, or members of the ruling family, would try to wrest control or profits from the company.

Take the example of Poulinat, Tunisia's largest holding company - 'We do chickens to mufflers!' said the company's garrulous foreign investment advisor Maher Kallel. Based in Sfax, the company did business with one of the main banks there. When the president of that bank became a political enemy of Ben Ali, and Poulinat kept doing business with them, the audits started coming. Audit, after audit, after audit. The Ministry of Finance "discovered" the company needed to pay $80 million in taxes. Ben Ali himself reportedly called the president of the company, Abdelwahb Ben Ayyed, and said, "Let's just cut it in half, and if you pay, I'll make sure nobody gives you anymore trouble."

Preferential access to duty-free imports for family and friends of the ruling regime nipped domestic industries in the bud.

All of this is to say that a generation of students is not operating in the real world they'd been promised. The economy has limped along at GDP growth rates around 5 percent during the past decade. The growth that did occur didn't spring up in the industry sectors that could accommodate educated young workers. And those living in outlying regions were completely neglected.

Did this cause the revolution? No. Was it a necessary condition? I think it had to be.

For now things are stable. Protests are fewer and farther between. People who have work are back at it.

Everyone is focused on the future. The transitional government is a group of Tunisia's brightest lights - technocrats and leaders. Some of them are returning from abroad, where they had pursued education at the world's finest universities and most prestigious institutions. Many of them have taken severe pay cuts to come back and serve their country. They have ambitious plans. Re-launch tourism. Fight corruption. Throw open the Internet. Invest in the outlying areas. Help recent grads find jobs. Fix the education system. Route out the old regime. Allow elections to happen.

But they are only here for six months.

And expectations are. . . huge.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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