The ousting of Tunisian president Zine Ben Ali took the world by surprise with its spontaneity and the strength of conviction of its grassroots supporters. This uprising was the real thing – sparked by the self-immolation of a disgruntled student, and culminating in mass protests across the country.
Apparently stable, Mr Ben Ali’s regime ticked a number of the boxes of desired traits with regard to his suppression of Islamic extremism, promotion of women in society, co-operation in the wars against terror, illegal immigration and drug smuggling. Tunisia was, for the Western world, a model Arab country – save for a number of issues.
The regime paid lip service to human rights, harassing, imprisoning and torturing its critics, muzzling the press and stifling all forms of dissent. Meanwhile, the fact that Mr Ben Ali was the beneficiary of 96% of votes at a recent election spoke volumes about the country’s democratic credentials.
Reliant on inward investment
But, as a non-oil-producing state, Tunisia and its 10 million inhabitants rely heavily on inward investment, and in this regard its secularism, reputation for stability, and openness toward the West have always stood it in good stead alongside other Maghreb countries – particularly Algeria and Libya – and encouraged large flows of investment, in particular from France, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands.
Secondary industry has been historically strong, with key exports being manufactured goods and agricultural products. Sun, sea and sand are also major contributors to the Tunisian economy.
With the recent creation of a caretaker government – some old faces, some new – it is perhaps too early to make confident predictions about the future (few people, perhaps even those involved, predicted the uprising or Mr Ben Ali’s flight). Nonetheless, preliminary indications are that Tunisians are anxious for continuity in their daily and commercial lives – and that, at least on the face of it, bodes well for investors.
Change for the better
Beligh Ben Soltane, the London-based director of the Tunisian investment agency FIPA, says the changes were good for investors, and that the flight of Mr Ben Ali and his entourage is a major blow against the kleptocracy.
Responsible for supplying 60% of Tunisia's domestic gas consumption, the BG Group is one of the biggest investors in Tunisia. A spokesperson for BG in Tunis says it is business as usual. “We’ve been in the country a long time”, he says, “and we’re committed for the long term. Our priority is the security of our people and our plants, but we’ve continued to operate throughout recent events.”
BG’s upbeat assessment was shared by David Piccaver, chairman of a salad supply company that has been growing lettuces in the south of the country for almost two years. Mr Piccaver was drawn to Tunisia as much for its reputation for stability, the role of women in society and educational attainment as well as its long growing season.
“None of our shipments have been disrupted, although we have missed a harvest,” he says, adding that the company would be reassuring its Tunisian employees that their jobs were not under threat but that rather, he looked forward to a reduction in red tape and low level corruption under a new government. “The next four or five months will be very important to us in terms of assessing long-term prospects,” he says.
The right ingredients
According to one human rights worker in Tunis, the country has the right ingredients for building a successful democracy – many of which have been mentioned in this article – but also including a homogeneous and linguistic make-up, relatively low unemployment and a desire to engage with the outside world. This will inspire present and future investors – and justifies characterising Tunisia’s chances as 'cautiously optimistic' – ie, the pundits’ favourite hedge.
But there are important caveats. At the time of writing, there was widespread dissatisfaction about politicians from the former regime who are still serving in key cabinet positions. There have been recent demonstrations, some leading to clashes with police, and many people are calling for a wholesale change in government. (The Ministry of Justice, meanwhile, has issued an international arrest warrant for the president.)
Meanwhile, fears of a spread of unrest across the region are looking as though they might have some ground – with protests on an unprecedented scale recently taking place in Egyptian cities. Tunisia’s mini-revolution might prove not to be the be-all and-end-all of political change in north Africa.