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Tunisia: Difficult Road to Stability

The North Africa Journal – February 13, 2018: Tunisia continues to face several pain points that the government is struggling to fully contain.  On the economic front, new datapoints confirm the tough start of the year for the country.  Its foreign exchange reserves have dropped to 11.8 billion dinars ($4.98 billion) as of 4 February 2018. This is not the most terrible news but for those in charge of maintaining regular supply, it means the reserve can handle 84 days worth of import, versus 101 days in the same period last year. The reason for that comes from revenues not picking up and in the tourism sector, a major contributor to the economy, is identified as the biggest culprit with dwindling tourism receipts.

Meanwhile, inflation has increased by 1.1% in January 2018 compared to December 2017, reaching almost 7%. The figure is not so dramatic, albeit high and a source of real stress for households as they do their shopping. One of the reasons behind this uptick is the 2.7% increase in the price of fuel, and 1.1% hike in food prices.

There has not been any substantial change in the job market as well.  Unemployment remains a major source of tension.  In Gabes, for instance, unemployment reached a staggering 25.8% of the population, meaning that more than one out of four residents is jobless. More than 36% of the jobless are university graduates.

Naturally, labor unrest remains high, affecting a great number of sectors. The union of the Gafsa Phosphate Company has announced a strike on 8 February, with workers fighting against suspension of production activities two weeks ago. Union leaders in the railway sector are about to launch a sit-in protest to denounce a shortage of workers and the poor state of trains. In 2017, 102 protests disrupted railway traffic in Tunisia. In the oil and gas industry, union leaders in Tataouine say that the workers of the South Services Company (SSC) will be observing a strike starting 21 February to demand salary hikes, the full integration of third-party employees and to denounce their living conditions. In the fisheries sector, fishermen from Abou Sif, in Nabeul, blocked the port of Kelibia on 10 February to complain about their bonuses.

But for the Tunisian authorities, security remains a major concern.  Their concerns come from the assumption that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is gaining momentum in the country, in the wake of the weakening Islamic State groups in North Africa, according to security sources in Tunisia.  Bilel Kobi, the AQIM official recently killed in Tunisia is said to have gathered all the leaders of AQIM groups in North Africa to discuss the possibility of a coalition, putting the Tunisian authorities on high alert. AQIM is also said to be trying to recruit returning IS fighters from Libya, Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, President Beji Caid Essebsi has extended the state of emergency by one month, in a bid to allow the security forces to better counter terrorism. The extension of the state of emergency is taking place as the EU has put Tunisia in black list for high-risk of terrorism financing. Despite fierce opposition, Tunisia has been added to the European blacklist of third countries thought to be at “high risk” of money laundering and terrorist financing. Despite intense efforts by some MEPs, they failed to achieve the 376-vote absolute majority needed to reject the inclusion of Tunisia, Sri Lanka, and Trinidad and Tobago to the European Commission’s list of non-EU countries considered to have strategic deficiencies in their anti-money laundering and terrorism financing regimes.

Tunisia’s stabilization effort remains a bumpy road. The various pain points it is dealing with make it very hard for the administration to put forward a comprehensive recovery plan, one that would require major choices and sacrifices.

The North Africa Journal is a leading English-language publication focused on North Africa. The Journal covers primarily the Maghreb region and expands its general coverage to the Sahel, Egypt, and beyond, when events in those regions affect the broader North Africa geography. The Journal does not have any affiliation with any institution and has been independent since its founding in 1996. Our position is to always bring our best analysis of events affecting the region, and remain as neutral as humanly possible. Our coverage is not limited to one single topic, but ranges from economic and political affairs, to security, defense, social and environmental issues. We rely on our full staff analysts and editors to bring you best-in-class analysis. We also work with sister company MEA Risk LLC, to leverage the presence on the ground of a solid network of contributors and experts. Information on MEA Risk can be found at www.MEA-Risk.com.