Prime Minister Habib Essid January 23 Al Wataniya and Nessma Interview | Source: Facebook

Habib Essid: Patience and the Road Ahead

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On Saturday, after returning from a week abroad at the Davos World Economic Forum and his first visit to France in his official capacity as Prime Minister, held two emergency cabinet meetings, a press conference notable only for its brevity before giving a nationally televised interview to Al Wataniya and Nessma TV channels.

Considering the tension in the country and the press and the impact bad news delivered in the soundbites of a press conference the lengthier medium of a television interview was a safer more sensible choice.Particularly considering it is the same press corps which days earlier had sat through the debacle that was recently appointed Khaled Chouket’s first press conference as the Spokesman of . Chouket, had ‘misspoken,’ after a cabinet meeting in Essid’s absence which had been presided over by Finance Minister Slim Chaker. At his inaugural press conference Chouket had erroneously claimed 5000 jobs would be distributed in Kasserine, only to have Slim Chaker have retake the podium later in the day to explain they were in fact ‘job training programs’ and adding insult to injury the 5000 were not exclusive to Kasserine but ‘nationwide’.

But even in the lengthier interview specific solutions regarding the path forward were hard to come by.  In explaining the situation Prime Minister Essid sounded more forlornly managerial, like a CEO about to announce massive layoffs; and reading into some of what he stressed more unemployment may indeed precede less.
Following the tone set by President Beji Caid Essebsi, Essid began by praising the work of security forces, who despite losing two of their own, caused no loss of life among protesters; Essid also addressed the “destructive elements” that “have failed to sneak into legitimate social protests.” (Rather than mere patriotic lip service, it is worth noting that unlike 2011 two security agents died during the week while there were no reported deaths amongst protesters.)
Then Prime Minister Essid addressed the crux of the matter: employment and the economy, he reiterated the position President Beji Caid Essebsi had expressed throughout the week “there are solutions, it takes a little patience and optimism.”; but then went into slightly (very slightly) more detail than Essebsi who had emphasised security to a fault.
Towards creating some optimism and seeking to relieve already thinning patience Essid announced that 100% of the funding for marginalized regions was being unblocked and that projects which had been blocked or frozen would be pushed through.
Then, in an effort not to announce “hasty or unrealistic decisions to calm tensions” Prime Minister Essid acknowledged the economic realities facing the country, framing facts which are well known into the current context and the quasi impossible task ahead acknowledging “These problems are mainly due to the accumulation of decades of marginalization,”
And in an indication that there will be no short, or perhaps even medium, term relief Essid gave notice that public sector jobs (i.e. the sort of municipal jobs Ridha Yahyaoui was awaiting recruitment for) would not be the answer: “We must think of encouraging investment and introduce young people to launch their projects and the government will do everything in this sense, because today, employment in the Tunisian administration is no longer possible knowing that it employs three times the number of staff it needs, ” concluded Habib Essid.  In other words, and tragically, list or no list Ridha Yahyaoui wasn’t going to be getting a job either way. Nor will the vast majority of unemployed protesters who occupied municipal offices demanding to be recruited. The road ahead will be difficult, it will require a liberalization and regulation of the economy which will further rattle nerves before soothing them.

There was little to no ‘new’ information or policies announced, all the figures have been mentioned elsewhere by government officials and all the programs mentioned are pre existing.  Yet, in framing the his speech around entrepreneurship and avoiding the fallacious promise of potential government hiring Essid became the highest level official to begin hinting at the impending consequences that liberalizing the economy will entail.  Or at least the highest level official to do so without a Western Financial agency holding a check in the background, normally liberalization buzzwords are thrown around with contradictory assurances of its limited scope or a newly announced government program to “manage the liberalization”.

Beyond the privatization of public land around Kasserine, which presumably was one thing Khaled Chouket’s press conference didn’t get wrong, and beyond regularizing the irregular economy there needs to be a massive push to the microfinance needed for younger and poorer citizens to be able to benefit.  Otherwise privatized land will go to the usual suspects and bringing irregular businesses into the fold will not result in growth for those businesses merely increased low level tax revenue.

Towards that task, Essid is scheduled to meet on Monday with representatives from the ruling coalition. The heads of the four parties (Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes, UPL, and Afek Tounes) held a meeting in Tunis ahead of Essid’s emergency cabinet meeting. After their meeting the coalition members issued a statement affirming their continued support for the government and expressed a desire to work with the government and the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) to “eradicate the scourge of corruption and remove administrative constraints and revise laws and legislation which are obstacles to investment domestic and foreign.”
For political parties which have demonstrated only an understanding of institutional capture rather than reform the task ahead will indeed seem paradoxical. For the necessary reforms to have a chance at being drawn up, much less enacted, the ruling coalition with all their rivalries and fickle supporters will have to begin reforming the very systems of civil service employment and patronage which is their common currency.

The cites Tunisia’s overall unemployment rate for 2014 as 15% against a rate of 15.3% in 2013, and 16.7% in 2012.  Youth unemployment stands in excess of 30% nationally and higher in certain regions, particularly the interior governorates of Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine.