Tunisia addresses the economy

Tuesday 19 Oct 2021

Two weeks after its appointment of the first female prime minister in the Arab region, Tunisia is in advanced talks with the Gulf states to help finance its budget

Tunisia addresses the economy
Saied chairing the first meeting of a new cabinet headed by the first female prime minister (photos: AFP)

After dissolving parliament and dismissing the government on 25 July, recent decisions by Tunisian President Kais Saied are slowly clarifying his transition plan for the troubled country.

After months of speculation and the political void of a suspended parliament and no premier, Saied won praise for appointing the first female prime minister in Tunisia and the Arab region in the person of academic geologist Najla Bouden on 29 September.

The move came after Saied issued a presidential decree that practically suspended the country’s 2014 Constitution while granting himself vast executive, judicial and legislative powers that critics described as unprecedented in Tunisia’s modern history.

The announcement known as Decree 117 also pledged to amend the constitution with the assistance of a committee appointed by the presidency.

Last week, Bouden, 63, formed a government that includes nine female ministers among its 25 members. It was welcomed by the United States as a “step forward towards addressing the significant economic, health and social challenges facing the country,” though Washington also reiterated its previous emphasis on the need for a “rapid return to constitutional order.”

As weekly protests in central Tunis erupted once again against Saied and his 117 Decree, US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price urged Saied and Bouden on 7 October “to respond to the Tunisian people’s call for a clear roadmap for a return to a transparent democratic process, involving civil society and diverse political voices.”

But the protests appear to have got fatigued, lost momentum or been put on wait-and-see pause following the formation of the new cabinet, even as Saied has escalated his measures against critics.

When former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki called on the French authorities to cease helping what he described as “the dictatorial regime in Tunisia,” Saied asked the justice minister to prosecute Marzouki on allegations of conspiring against state security.

Saied said he would withdraw the former president’s passport “because he is among the enemies of Tunisia,” and he seized the opportunity to express his rejection of eastern pressure on Tunisia, describing it as interference in the country’s internal affairs.

A statement issued by the presidency said that Saied had informed the US ambassador to Tunisia of his dissatisfaction with the House Foreign Affairs Committee plan to discuss Tunisia at a hearing called “Examining the State of Democracy and Next Steps for US Policy” on 14 October.

In all of Saied’s statements since his intervention on 25 July, he has made no mention of plans to hold early elections even after months without a parliament.

Now that a new cabinet has been sworn in, it appears that Saied is moving towards addressing Tunisia’s troubled economy, the primary reason for the public’s disillusionment with the dissolved parliament and the country’s political class.

According to Saied, both the parliament and the dismissed premier manifested corruption and were impediments to Tunisia’s advancement. Now that they are out of the picture and have been replaced with a handpicked premier and he has been armed with vast powers, the president is having to confront Tunisia’s economic decline.

This was aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic, with Tunisia registering 18 per cent unemployment and debt verging on 100 per cent of gross domestic product.

On October 14, the US ratings agency Moody’s downgraded Tunisia’s sovereign rating from B3 to Caa1, while maintaining a negative outlook. 

Moody’s said the negative outlook “reflects the risks associated with possible delays in the implementation of reforms as well as the financing that depends on them, which would lead to the melting of foreign exchange reserves.”

The new rating comes days after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued its World Economic Outlook on 12 October, where it expected the growth rate in Tunisia to reach three per cent for the whole of 2021 and 3.3 per cent in 2022, according to the website Al-Monitor.

Last week, the Central Bank of Tunisia announced a severe shortage of external financial resources and a deficit in financing the current year’s budget, noting that this reality “reflects the fear of international lenders in the light of the deterioration of the country’s sovereign ratings and the absence of a new programme with the International Monetary Fund.”

Saied’s intervention on 25 July paused delayed talks with the IMF for a fourth bailout package in 10 years, with this being expected to unlock further economic assistance and avert a crisis in public finances.

The former university professor made no secret of his disdain for Tunisia’s political class and its model of democracy when he campaigned for election in 2019.

While opposition to his intervention and newly amassed powers has won him critics across the political spectrum, public opinion polls by local independent centres have remained in his favour.

However, a recent Zogby Research poll on 15 August and 5 September revealed for the first time that 51 per cent of Tunisians disapprove of his decision in July to freeze parliament and dismiss the prime minister.

Tunisia repaid more than $1 billion in debt this summer from its foreign currency reserves, but it must find about $5 billion more to finance a projected budget deficit and more loan repayments.

According to a report by the US financial service Bloomberg on Monday, Tunisia is in “very advanced” discussions with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help in financing its budget.

Citing Abdelkarim Lassoued, the head of financing and foreign transactions at the Tunisian regulator, Bloomberg said that an agreement “may be reached soon,” without revealing details on the amount of aid being discussed.

Lassoued also said that the Central Bank and Finance Ministry have had recent discussions with the IMF about possible economic reforms. The government must reach consensus with trade unions and business leaders on such steps so they can be enacted as soon as possible, he said.

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