The Bill For Tunisia’s ‘Waithood’ is Long Overdue

For decades, young Tunisians have struggled to move beyond what American political scientist Diane Singerman refers to as “waithood,” the limbo where university graduates in the Middle East and North Africa idle as they look for employment. Today, the frustration of those unemployed youth epitomizes the predicament Tunisia finds itself in as the country searches for light at the end of the long social and economic tunnel.

Despite politicians’ promises to create jobs and correct development imbalances after the toppling of the Ben Ali regime in January 2011, 30 percent of university graduates remain unemployed. Tunisia’s sluggish economic growth of the last decade has hobbled the government’s ability to hire graduates – or anybody else for that matter. In the absence of reforms, the private sector has also suffered.

The International Monetary Fund and other foreign lenders are now pressuring Tunisia to introduce meaningful reforms, which would include reducing the share of the state budget devoted to civil service salaries – a ratio considered one the highest in the world. There are already 650,000 public service employees in a population of less than 12 million and that does not  include the 150,000 workers in state-owned companies. And despite recent expressions of satisfaction over “progress” in the “technical” round of talks between the government and the IMF, the coming months are unlikely to be any easier for Tunisia.

Ripple effects from Ukraine, including higher oil prices and more expensive grain imports, will add to the country’s economic challenges. On the way to securing a $4 billion loan deal to fill the country’s 2022 budget gap, Prime Minister Najla Bouden must assemble a reform package that will satisfy the IMF while keeping social upheaval in check. Her cabinet has been floating suggestions that include cuts to price subsidies and public service job cuts.

Those in power today must surmount a legacy of unrealistic expectations nurtured by successive governments. At one time, the late President Beji Caid Essebsi thought Tunisia deserved to receive a full-fledged Marshall Plan from the West as a reward for having sparked the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Nothing resembling that came through.

Some post-2011 administrations vowed to reinvent the socioeconomics of the country. Instead, they used international loans to pay workers’ salaries, provide subsidies, and shore up the finances of failing government-owned companies. Populism trumped budget realities while creating a monstrous debt problem.

Nothing illustrates better the country’s unused potential than the large number of high-level cadres who are emigrating in droves. Tens of thousands of doctors and engineers have left for Europe and Gulf countries. Less fortunate Tunisians are trying the path of illegal emigration through Italy.

There are obvious trepidations about the needed reforms and many fret over the possible social repercussions. President Kais Saied has said that passing on the costs of austerity measures to the poor is “a red line,” which he is unwilling to cross. Foreign donors know the country is walking on thin ice, given that the unemployed and the poor, including many who used to belong to the middle classes, are unwilling to continue footing the country’s bills.

It will not be easy for the government to strike compromises with the powerful UGTT labor union, which has just come out of its general congress buoyed by the re-election of its leadership. The union will bargain hard to protect the old system of entitlements and ensure that reform measures do not further penalize workers. Unsure to what extent its members will be willing to accept sacrifices, the union has already drawn lines in the sand over price subsidies and preservation of public enterprises.

Another challenge during the months ahead is the likely instability linked to the country’s fractious politics. Considering recent statements by the UGTT’s leader Noureddine Taboubi, the union is jockeying for a more assertive political role. “Time is up,” Taboubi said in a recent interview, insisting that “concessions” are needed to end political feuding.

But that is easier said than done. It will be particularly tough to reenact the events of 2013, when the trade unions were part of a civil society National Dialogue Quartet, which pulled the country from the brink of civil war. The quartet’s efforts eventually earned Tunisia a Nobel Peace Prize and a lot of political mileage that was quickly squandered.

Then, there is the external front. Some foreign donors hope President Saied will use his high stock in terms of public opinion to sell the painful reforms to the public. While he prepares the country for a referendum and early elections by December, the president is likely to insist on social measures that would mitigate the impact of the economic reforms.

At the same time, most Western powers don’t know what to make of Saied. There appears to be ambivalence towards the Tunisian leader who invoked “exceptional measures” in July to suspend parliament and rule by decree.  Despite pressures, Saied has not budged from his position and seems unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. Western governments are likely to remain on wait-and-see mode. Responding with aid cuts is not viewed as an option, given that it could destabilize the country.

Meanwhile, most Tunisians know the solution to the country’s woes starts and ends at home, with the building of common ground that would allow the nation to minimize and manage the turbulence ahead. The costs of prolonged “waithood” for unemployed youth, inadequate management of the economic crisis, and strife-driven politics have been high. And the bill is long overdue.

Oussama Romdhani is the editor of The Arab Weekly. He previously served in the Tunisian government and as a diplomat in Washington.