December 12, 2011 / 2:53 PM / in 6 years

Economy could sink Tunisia revolution:outgoing PM

TUNIS, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Tunisia is only at the beginning of its “Arab Spring” revolution and it could still go off course if the next government does not fix the country’s economic problems, the outgoing prime minister said on Monday.

Protests in Tunisia in January forced autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee, and then inspired a wave of revolts in the region that became known as the “Arab Spring”.

Tunisia’s often bumpy transition to democracy has been watched closely by other Arab states, especially Egypt and Libya, which followed Tunisia’s example by ousting their entrenched leaders.

“There is no ‘Arab Spring’, but there is the beginning of a spring in Tunisia,” Outgoing Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi told a conference on stimulating growth and investment. “There will be no spring if Tunisia does not succeed.”

Sebsi is set to step down as prime minister within days and hand over to a coalition government led by the moderately Islamist Ennahda party, which won Tunisia’s first democratic election in October.

“To succeed, we need to overcome the country’s economic problems, like the nearly 800,000 unemployed, of whom 250,000 are graduates. The graduates do not want to wait,” he said.

Tunisia’s revolution gave the North African country democratic freedoms for the first time since it won independence from France more than half a century ago.

However, the revolution did not address the poverty and high unemployment that are the main preoccupation of most citizens. In fact, the revolution hurt the economy by frightening off some tourists and foreign investors.

In the past few weeks, anger over poverty and unemployment caused rioting in several towns. Protesters set fire to public buildings and clashed with security forces.

Sebsi urged the next government to make good on its promise to keep the economy open to the outside world and honour Tunisia’s international commitments.

The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) is forecast to drop to about 0.2 percent this year from 3 percent in the last year of Ben Ali’s rule. However, officials expect it to bounce back to 4.5 percent in 2012.

Unemployment, at 13 percent at the end of 2010, is now at 18.3 percent, according to central bank figures. The jobless rate among young people is much higher. (Reporting By Tarek Amara; Editing by Christian Lowe and Alessandra Rizzo)

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