samedi 10 novembre 2007

Tunisia: The Price of Prosperity

Tunisia: The Price of Prosperity
By VIVIENNE WALT/TUNIS Time Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007

Je viens de recevoir cet article par mail de la part de la section culturelle de l’ambassade Américaine à Tunis. Il traite un sujet d’actualité relatif à la Tunisie d’aujourd’hui et des frais dudit miracle économique…La Partie que j’ai mis en gras mérite vraiment une lecture attentive car elle met en exergue l’autre face de la Tunisie que le pouvoir n’épargne aucun effort pour cacher….Sorry pour ceux qui ne comprennent pas la langue de Shakespeare, j’ai pas trouvé assez de temps pour traduire l’article…En somme, c’est vraiment désolant de lire ce que les autres écrivent à propos de l’état actuel de notre pays au moment où les concernés (les Tunisiens) qui paient cher les frais de ce système restent muets ou bien au contraire célèbrent (Dieu seul sait si c’est par conviction ou pas) le 20éme anniversaire…Bien sur à part les libres de cette nation…

Sinking into a plush armchair, Mounir Khélifa glances around the lobby of a luxury Tunis hotel and chuckles at the transformation he has seen in his lifetime. "Imagine: I come from a small village," says Khélifa, whose father raised 15 children on the proceeds of his olive grove, and sent all 10 sons to school. Khélifa went on to earn a Ph.D. in literature at Yale, and at 55, teaches the poetry of Wordsworth and Milton at Manouba University in Tunis. Khélifa may sound extraordinary. But in Tunisia, he says, "mine is a common story. I am by no means unique."
Khélifa may not be unique, but Tunisia itself comes close to it. Fifty-one years after gaining independence from France, this spit of land with just 10.2 million people has largely triumphed over the grinding problems of poverty and illiteracy that have beset Arab neighbors like Morocco and Algeria, and left parts of Africa close to economic collapse. In the process, Tunisia offers other developing nations a tantalizing example of how to overhaul their economies by pushing education, business-friendly policies and trade with the West. Much as Singapore has done in Southeast Asia, Tunisia has succeeded by galvanizing the raw potential of its people. It's an impressive instance of a country farsightedly making a virtue out of necessity: despite being wedged between energy giants Libya and Algeria, Tunisia has few natural resources; no vein of gems or minerals runs under its desert flatlands.
Yet that hardly matters. In Tunis, there are now entire new districts of office buildings, with signs announcing the recent arrival of multinationals like Pfizer, Ericsson and Siemens; in October Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer flew in to weigh new ventures in the country. Amid the pizza parlors, cappuccino bars and bowling alleys, realtors advertise million-dollar villas with pools and saunas, while shopping malls are jammed with Tunisians buying food and furniture imported from Europe. With the embrace of Western-style capitalism has come social change, too: the biggest TV hit this year was Star Academy Maghreb, a homegrown version of the French original, in which performers in skintight outfits gyrated to modern remixes of North African music. "This is a new age here," says Ghazi Karoui, who co-launched the independent Nessma TV earlier this year, with the hit show.
On Oct. 31, in a Global Competitiveness Report that compares 125 countries, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum ranked Tunisia as having by far the best prospects for growth in Africa, and it ranked third in the Arab world after energy-rich Kuwait and Qatar. The report cited Tunisia's low corruption, stable government and educated, French-speaking population. Lying close to Europe's huge markets, and with an enticingly low-cost, well-trained workforce, Tunisia is increasingly seen by European and U.S. companies as a near-perfect base. French carmaker Peugeot recognized these advantages when it recently opted to move its customer-service call center from Lyons to Tunis.
"We have plenty of skilled people here," says Moez Bakir, an engineering manager at Eurocast, a Tunisian subsidiary of Arizona-based firm Paradigm Precision Holdings. Eurocast, which is based outside Tunis, builds aircraft parts for GE Aviation and Rolls-Royce, paying its machine operators about $280 a month — a fraction of what equivalent workers would earn in Europe. Over 80% of Tunisia's exports head to Europe, where they will soon be exempt from customs duties, thanks to a free-trade agreement that takes effect in January. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Europeans soak up the sun on Tunisia's beaches every year. "All that is very interesting for foreign investors," says Margareta Drzeniek Hanouz, senior economist at the World Economic Forum. "The differences are very visible in our data compared to other African and Middle Eastern countries."
On government-controlled TV and radio, that message has been hammered home in recent weeks, as Tunisians mark a historic date: the 20th anniversary of the coup that brought President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to power on Nov. 7, 1987. Educated in France and the U.S., Ben Ali was Prime Minister when he ousted Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern Tunisia. Today, celebratory billboards around Tunis hail the 71-year-old Ben Ali, often pictured wearing his ceremonial sash and medals.
Ben Ali did not respond to TIME's interview requests, but his officials gladly rattle off lists of figures to show Tunisia's progress under his regime. The numbers are striking: while Egypt and Algeria suffer from chronic shortages, Tunisia has a 15% surplus of housing, thanks to massive government construction programs. And about 80% of Tunisians own their homes — ahead of much of Europe. While African countries struggle to educate their children, school is compulsory — and free — in Tunisia up to age 16. About 34% of Tunisian high school graduates go to university, more than five times the rate when Ben Ali took power. This creates an ample supply of skilled graduates. "The President has totally changed this society and economy," says Minister of Development and International Cooperation Mohamed Nouri Jouini, who lived in Oregon in the 1980s when Tunisia was "on the edge of total bankruptcy," but raced home in 1987 to work for Ben Ali. He says most Tunisians see that their leader has improved their lives: "People are conscious of the achievements and want to keep them."
But success has come at a price: freedom. Tunisia's critics say that beneath the gloss of modernity, the ruling party has snuffed out dissent, leaving Ben Ali unchallenged. Some Tunisians, along with Western diplomats, have begun to wonder whether repression and economic growth can continue to coexist, or whether tight government control might ultimately provoke a backlash as middle-class Tunisians demand more civil liberties, and as jobless youth seek outlets to vent their frustration — not least by joining radical Islamic organizations. "Tunisia is the one Arab country which could afford real political openness, but the system is completely closed," says a former World Bank economist with long experience of Tunisia. "They do not open up, because people like to stay in power."
In 1998, under pressure from his Western allies, Ben Ali set aside 20% of seats in parliament for opposition parties. The multiparty system is "the government's décor, to show the world it tolerates opposition parties," says Eric Goldstein, Middle East and North Africa research director for Human Rights Watch. "But it does its utmost to silence and marginalize them."
One opposition figure with intimate experience of these pressures is activist Ahmed Néjib Chebbi, founder of the Progressive Democratic Party, Tunisia's most outspoken opposition party, which has no seats in parliament. When TIME interviewed him in Tunis, Chebbi, 64, was about to begin a hunger strike to protest an eviction order from his party headquarters, which he said was one of the few gathering places for activists. Although the party is legal, its members say it is shut out of parliament by being starved of exposure. "In 15 years as head of the party I've had eight minutes on national television," says Chebbi. Government officials dismiss him as little more than a handy antigovernment source for the foreign press. Béchir Tékari, Minister of Justice and Human Rights, complains: "Some people are content to take information from a certain minority of activists."
Any political challenge to Ben Ali has so far proved ineffective. Opposition candidates were allowed to run for President in 1999 and 2004, but some opposition parties endorsed Ben Ali — who won 94% of the vote three years ago. Officials insist that this reflects genuine support, rather than a lack of choice. "Ben Ali is more than a party leader; he is a national leader," says Zouheir M'Daffar, the Minister in charge of administrative reform. Although the next presidential election is two years away, Tunis is already decorated with billboards imploring Ben Ali to run again in 2009. "The succession word is totally taboo," says Khélifa, the English professor. "Ben Ali is here to stay."
The human-rights record of Tunisia — with its small population and economy — should perhaps matter little to the West, compared with that of Libya and Algeria, whose mammoth energy reserves make them important strategic players. But Tunisia's crackdown against Islamic militants has made it a dependable partner in Washington's war on terror, and Tunisian intelligence officers provide "intense cooperation" with CIA and FBI agents, says Tahar Fellous Refaï, director general of external relations and international cooperation at Tunisia's Ministry of the Interior. In October the ripples from Tunisia's approach to human rights reached Washington: a federal judge ordered the U.S. government not to send a Guantánamo detainee home to Tunisia, fearing he'd be tortured in jail and suffer "devastating and irreparable harm." Ten Tunisians remain in Guantánamo, and Refaï says they can expect many years in prison if they are repatriated.
Tunisia's largest trading partner, France, broke years of silence over the country's human-rights record when President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Tunis last July. He told Ben Ali he was concerned about the arrest of a prominent lawyer, Mohammed Abbou, on what some regarded as dubious charges of assaulting a colleague and defaming the judiciary. Abbou was freed shortly after, ending two years in jail. In late October, the European Parliament's human-rights committee head, Hélène Flautre, visited Chebbi in the fourth week of his hunger strike, and told reporters that Tunisia's policies were "unbearable." Days later, Ben Ali revoked the eviction order against Chebbi's political party, and he ended his hunger strike.
But officials make no apologies for their tough stance on political dissent, which they say has helped to protect Tunisia from the kind of terrorist attacks suffered in Algeria and Morocco. "We have eradicated terrorism as a phenomenon," says Refaï. Scores of members of the Tunisian Islamic organization Ennahdha have been jailed or exiled to Europe. This crackdown has intensified since Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat last year renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and vowed to recruit terrorists across North Africa. In January, at least 14 people were killed in gun battles between security forces and groups of militants who had slipped across the border from Algeria.
To the government, these clashes proved that its hardline policies were justified. "Call it the politics of prudence," says government spokesman Oussama Romdhani. "Why open a Pandora's box by giving fundamentalists a political party? We are sitting peacefully." But even strict secularist laws might not shield Tunisia from growing Muslim fervor in the region. "Before, you never saw a woman veiled in Tunis," says Amel Belhadj Ali, a journalist for the Tunis magazine L'Expression, sitting in her office in jeans and a T shirt. "Now you see more and more." Anti-American sentiment may also be on the rise. The magazine's editor, Ridha Kéfi, hosts roundtable discussions between intellectuals and government officials. But, he says, many guests refuse to attend because the program is funded by the U.S. State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative, which bankrolls efforts to promote democracy. Kéfi explains: "They don't want to be mixed up with American money."
That can hardly be said of Tunisia's business executives, who are busily promoting their country as an ideal launching pad for foreign investors seeking a cheap, well-located route into Europe's markets. Fifteen Tunisian businessmen flew to Washington in October to pump that message to Congressmen and executives, and a group of U.S. businessmen is slated to arrive in Tunis this month to scout for opportunities. At Eurocast, the aircraft-parts maker, engineering manager Bakir says revenues should jump from $5 million to $7 million next year, as more Western companies sign contracts. To him, the possibilities in Tunisia seem boundless. "I am part of this generation which has multiple choices," he says. "A lot of my friends left for the United States and Europe, but a lot have come back."
The returnees have found a nation that has learned to live on its wits and prosper in the global economy, just like the nations of southeast Asia. In Asia, it's often been said — though never proved — that economic success leads ineluctably to political openness. That hasn't happened in Tunisia as yet; but it would be really something — for North Africa, the Arab world, and international
society generally — if, one day, it did.

Aucun commentaire:

Enregistrer un commentaire