Tunisia hopes democracy will spur investment

AFP, Monday 31 Oct 2011

Economic recovery is fragile but tourism and exports are already starting to climb, says head of the country's central bank

Democratic elections should revive an economy brought to its knees by the revolution that swept from power the oligarchal regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the head of the Tunisian central bank said.

After years of averaging five per cent growth, the revolution that began in December 2011 pushed Tunisia into economic free fall.

As the political process of writing a new constitution begins, problems that urgently need tackling range from 300,000 unemployed graduates to how to relaunch the country's battered tourism industry.

"The top priority is the return of international and domestic investment, which we hope will come with (the return) of democracy," Tunisian central bank governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli told AFP.

The Islamist party Ennahda won 90 out of the 217 seats in the constituent assembly in the 23 October election and is now tasked with forming an interim government and writing the much-anticipated new constitution.

It has repeated assurances to investors that Tunisia remains an attractive country for business.

But the economy contracted by three per cent in the first quarter and only 0.5 per cent growth is expected for all of 2011.

For the governor, growth will improve with the return of confidence.

Nabli warned however that in order "to create enough jobs and remedy social inequality", Tunisia needed 7.0 per cent annual growth.

High unemployment was a key factor in the fall of the Ben Ali regime. Now the challenge is not only to bring down the 20 per cent jobless rate, but to find careers for the country's army of jobless university graduates.

Whatever the difficulties ahead, Nabli said he was confident that Tunisia had left the danger zone and that the economy was headed in the right direction.

With the unrest, the bottom fell out of the tourism sector, which normally counts for seven per cent of the economy. But after falling by 60 per cent in the first quarter, Nabli said the sector had shown signs of recovery.

Despite the troubles, "public services continued to function and as early as April we noted a slight rise in exports of manufactured goods," Nabli said.

"The economic recovery is there. It is fragile, but the macro-economic balances are satisfactory," he said.

2012 will be a good year, the governor said.

"If the transition goes well, democracy will give us a clear advantage because our society will function more transparently. We got rid of a predatory regime where corruption was the rule and that should open up space for investment," he said.

Nabli added that growth in Tunisia would also depend on the economy in Europe, which represents 80 per cent of trade; and the situation in Libya, which is the country's second biggest trading partner after France.

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