The competition, a traditional debate organized periodically by the North African Economist between two personalities from the worlds of politics and economics, this time brought Hatem Ben Salem, diplomat and former Minister of Education, face to face with Radhi Meddeb, economic expert and founding president of the association “Action et développement solidaire”.
On the menu are the causes of the multi-faceted crisis in which Tunisia is struggling, the budgetary errors before 2010, the ongoing negotiations with the IMF to obtain new payment facilities, the failures caused by the marginalization of the economy for ten years, political immobility , the responsibility of those in power… The debate, which also focused on the avenues to be explored to get out of the crisis, is full of figures, exclusive information and things that have not been said about corporate governance, including the Gafsa Phosphate Company, STEG, Ciments de Carthage, just to name a few.
Hatem Ben Salem: “After 2011, there was no leadership crisis, but there was a governance crisis”.
“I call for the union of Tunisians and a two-year moratorium with the IMF. †
First of all, I would like to largely agree with Si Radhi Meddeb’s presentation on the general situation in which Tunisia currently finds itself.
I don’t quite agree with this comparison between before and after 2011. The difference is that in 2011, there was a state, there were statesmen. Everyone knows that before 2011, other countries were in almost the same situation as Tunisia and suffered greatly from the 2008 financial crisis.
It is also true that Tunisia was not in the desired situation, a situation that made it possible to manage its foundations. It was therefore necessary to find a policy to deal with this crisis situation. What happened after 2011? Radhi Meddeb spoke a little bit about it. After 2011, the crisis was not a leadership crisis and to date there is no leadership crisis. It’s a governance crisis. Nowadays we work almost without a step-by-step plan. We see a total lack of transparency in the decision-making process, which puts us in an overhang situation, even with the institutions with which we had very good relations before 2011.
Hatem Ben Salem: “The real power is no longer there, it is a centralized power, but a facade”
I remember that before 2011, Tunisia had a lot of negotiations with the IMF, the World Bank, the rating agencies. I was at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in my capacity as Secretary of State I often met the representatives of these institutions, discussed with them and ensured that things could evolve in the general interest of Tunisia. Today the real power is no longer there, it is a centralized power, but a facade. It was a watered down power before July 25, 2021, but now it’s gone, because everyone preaches to their parish, everyone goes there with their own speech.
Hatem Ben Salem: Negotiations have started badly
For our foreign interlocutors it is a real cacophony, which takes away any credibility from the negotiations in Washington. How do you expect international officials, who know the political, economic and social situation in Tunisia perfectly, to negotiate with Tunisian officials who are still manipulating and falsifying the figures? There is some doubt about the accuracy of the figures presented. That’s what economists have said recently. So there is a crisis of confidence and negotiations have got off to a bad start. In contrast, an international negotiator, the IMF, takes advantage of these weaknesses. Therefore, any agreement with the IMF can only be concluded under the current circumstances to the detriment of Tunisia.
Hatem Ben Salem: ‘I advocate a two-year moratorium’
This is also why I have proposed to negotiate with the IMF. It is within reach of Tunisia. I advocate a two-year moratorium. And for one simple reason. We cannot go into the implementation of the IMF preconditions and conditions without preparing the political, economic and social terrain internally, without reaching a consensus of all the living forces of the country on a road surface. I had also suggested that the national dialogue to be launched for this purpose should not be a dialogue of fools, a dialogue of politicians. It must be a dialogue of experts, of experts from every political movement. Get them all together and come up with a roadmap and specific two-year goals! I therefore call for the Union of Tunisians. I have even called for the establishment of a government of war, because Tunisia is in the midst of a war against poverty, bankruptcy, indebtedness, state decay. We are in a situation where the country no longer has benchmarks.
Hatem Ben Salem: We are missing a historic opportunity to build a political, economic and social system that could have changed Tunisia’s future. For, again, administrative reasons” No one can deny that the original mistake, at least in the last years of the decade (2000-2010), was that numbers became more important than people. There was poor redistribution of wealth and that was one of the causes of the outbreak of the 2011 uprising. What we forget is that there were people who did not agree with this state of affairs at the time. This is what we’re trying to erase and make people forget.
Hatem Ben Salem: we missed five years of restructuring, five years of reform
Personally, I was among those affected. In an area like education, at a time when we really had the resources, the government didn’t want to invest. Although the minimum was there, this minimum no longer suited the situation of the Tunisian education system between 2005 and 2010. Moral of the story: we missed five years of restructuring, five years of reform, five years of infrastructure renovation, five years invest in education where possible. It’s true. Today we find ourselves in a completely different situation, a situation in which we live in expectation. Personally, I was one of the first to support this action of 25 July 2021. Why? Because it ended 10 years of political and institutional hypocrisy. I was part of a government and at one point I had refused to go to parliament for six months.
I had even received a threatening letter from the Vice-President of Parliament, urging me to appear before committees and attend plenary debates. I had declined because I was convinced that we were living a real masquerade. And that the parliament and the government met the expectations of the people. Today we have a president who combines all powers. We have the opportunity to make real reforms. But alas, three times unfortunately. The conclusion is negative. We are missing a historic opportunity to build a political, economic and social system that could have changed Tunisia’s future. We miss this opportunity for, again, administrative reasons. We cannot aspire to change Tunisia by resorting to incompetence. We really need to think about the perspective of setting up a real government, with a real vision, a real roadmap. We must demand results, and concrete results, because that is what Tunisians expect. Tunisians today live in cacophony. They are confronted with a discourse that shames, threatens, paralyzes, suffocates them every day and this cannot continue. It is necessary to bring together all the vital forces of the nation to build a team capable of sustaining the nation, at least for the next two years.
(The full version of the debate is published in issue 843 of l’Economiste Maghrébin from April 27 to May 11, 2022)