Democratic deficits in the midst of liberalisation

Salaheddin El Jorshi
Tunisian League for Human Rights

In 1987, following a crisis in the balance of payments, Tunisia entered a structural adjustment programme, aimed at liberalising the economy and cutting the State’s role in competitive economic sectors. From 1997 onwards, the government accelerated the process and started selling companies that were not losing money. Civil society has been unable to exert pressure on the government to prevent decisions being made contrary to the interests of the majority.

In1987, following a crisis in the balance of payments, Tunisia entered astructural adjustment programme aimed at liberalising the economy and cuttingthe State’s role in competitive economic sectors. The process started slowlyand with strong state investment, in an attempt to make the public sectorcompetitive. First hotels and commercial establishments—at that time beingeasier to sell—were privatised, and then textiles, foodstuffs, transport,chemicals, building materials and suppliers of electric and mechanicalequipment. From 1997 onwards, the government accelerated the process and startedselling profitable companies. Between 1997 and 2000 alone, 66 companies wereprivatised. At the beginning of 2001, the government issued a list with 41 otherpublic companies that were to be privatised.

Thepresent situation

Strongpressure is being exerted on the state budget, owing to the drop in treasuryincome caused by the elimination of tariffs, and the expected fall in non-taxincome caused by the drop in income from oil. The drop in income from publiccompanies to be partially or totally privatised also creates a complex situationthat is getting worse after four years of drought. Furthermore, the decreasedincome from the tourist sector following the events of 11 September 2001 and theattack at Djerba in April 2002—which claimed some twenty Germanvictims—should also be taken into account. All this has affected thecitizens’ purchasing power, which has fallen by 25% since the mid-1980s,because the government has had to withdraw its support to products of primarynecessity.

Theslower rate of world growth, the rise in essential convertible currencies suchas the dollar and the euro, the opening up of the European market (to whichTunisia is linked through an association agreement) to new member states and,finally, changes in climate have all added to the hard blows received by thecountry in vital sectors such as tourism and handicrafts.

Nevertheless,official figures indicate a retrocession in the poverty index, which droppedfrom 6.2% in 1995 to 4.2% at present. The rate of sub-standard housing has alsodropped: 1.2% in the year 2000 against 8.8% in 1984. The rate of connection todrinking water is 79.5% and the electrification rate was 95% in 2001. The rateof social security coverage has reached 85%.[1]Given that 15% of Tunisians are not covered by social security, it is urgentthat the government reforms the system in such a way as to ensure sufficientcoverage for all.

Theeconomically active population amounts to 3,292,700 people (according to 2001figures), of whom 75.4% are men and 24.6% are women. The demand for new jobswill reach 80,000 per year in the next few years, owing to the continuouslyincreasing number of women in the labour market and the number of womenreceiving diplomas reaching 25,000 per year. The service sector was the greatestsource of income during the 1990s. Administrative and commercial servicesrepresented 55% of the GDP. Thus, this sector has generated the greatest numberof jobs, with 44.1% of the labour force, owing to a significant drop in theagricultural sector.

Accordingto official 2001 statistics, unemployment is 15%. However, according to someexperts, the proportion is greater, particularly in the poorer regions inland,which are less attractive to investors, and where unemployment may reach as highas 30%. It should be noted that pressure on the labour market comes from peoplehaving a low level of education (13% of the unemployed in 1999 were illiterateand 48% had not gone beyond primary education). The threat of unemployment hangsover whole sectors of the population and is accentuated by the probable increasein dismissals for economic reasons due to restructuring, bankruptcy orprivatisation, which continues to be slow in spite of the advantages gainedthereby.

Despitethese positive aspects of government action to mitigate the negative effects ofglobalisation, feminist associations, trade unions and human rightsorganisations fear that a difficult stage lies ahead. In fact, continuing thetransfer of public companies to the benefit of national and foreign capital mayendanger the existence of numerous social achievements. Among them, note shouldbe taken of the creation, during the period of the Ninth Development Plan(1997-2001) of 322,000 new workstations; an increase in the per capita income(from USD 1,478 in 1996 to USD 2,100 in 2001); an increase in life expectancyfrom 71 years in 1994 to 72.9 years; a drop in the infant mortality rate from29.7 per thousand to 25.8 per thousand over the same period; an increase in theschooling rate for the age group between 6 and 24 years of age from 61.7% in1994 to 68.4% in 2001 and in the 20-24 years of age group, from 12.5% to 23%; areduction of the illiteracy rate: 24.7% in 2001 against 31.7% in 1994; anincrease in the rate of connection to drinking water in rural areas rising to81% in 2001 against 68.3% in 1996; an improvement in the rate of ruralelectrification that reached 91.7% in 2001 against 75.7% in 1996; and a drop insub-standard housing from 2.7% to 1.2% in 2001.[2]


Thenumber of economically active women increased tenfold between 1966 and 1977,while over the same period the total of working people only doubled. Althoughthe proportion of female labour showed an increase, in 1997 men were stillheading the labour market at a ratio of three men to each woman. It was observedthat the proportion of single or divorced working women is greater than that ofmarried women as their inherent family responsibilities curb their access to thelabour market.

Theservices sector employs an important volume of women, mainly in the teaching,health and civil service sectors, although it should be noted that many of thepositions occupied by women are poorly paid. However, the industrial sector isthe largest employer of women: 43.4% against 37.5% in the service sector, andthe textile industry essentially relies on women, as it employs almost one thirdof the active female population.

Itshould be noted that approximately 40,000 women do not work more than threemonths a year, carrying out part-time or seasonal jobs. Many companies,including those in the public sector, resort to temporary employment methods,such as short-term contracts. To this should be added the fact that towards2005, the date when the Multi-Fibre Agreement for textile companies expires,[3] Tunisia may find itself deprived of the advantages ithas had for the protection of this sector, a major employer of female workers.

Subcontracting—aphenomenon that arose in the 1970s and which, according to the experts, willincrease with globalisation of the economy and instability of the labourmarket—will have negative consequences on the situation of women and provoke afeminisation of poverty.

Openingup markets

Withthe Tenth Development Plan covering the period 2002-2006, the private sector hasbecome an essential element in economic and social development, given that it isobliged to reach 58.5% of global investment by 2006 (this figure was 55% in2001). Thus, liberalisation of certain strategic sectors should becontinued—like transport, for example—and efforts should be made to attractforeign direct investment towards the sectors having the greatest capital gains,such as agro-foodstuffs or the pharmaceutical sector.

Howfar can the government control prices and impose loyal competition whileguaranteeing transparency in economic transactions and increasing exports oflocal goods? The reforms undertaken over the past years by the government areaimed at replacing the system of accumulation regulated by the State, by asystem of accumulation regulated by the foreign market. The Tunisian tradeunions are convinced that this attitude involves threats of repercussions to thesocial strata that are most vulnerable to the negative effects of theliberalisation wave.

Aclear retrocession has been observed in foreign direct investment in theindustrial and agricultural sectors and progress has been made in the servicesector, particularly tourism and the real estate market, in a proportion closeon 50% of investment. In the light of trends of the previous years, and in spiteof a prudent and progressive policy for liberalisation of the service sector,the fears regarding the negative consequences of opening up to competitionimposed by the WTO are still valid. For this reason, the Tenth Development Planprepared by the government foresees a strengthening of state intervention tocontain and attenuate the disadvantages of liberalising the economy. Among them,it faces the challenge of unemployment by the creation of 380,000 workstations,that is to say, 95% of the additional demand, and a reduction in theunemployment rate from 15% to 13%. The Plan also proposes to increase socialsecurity coverage to 90% in 2006, reduce the illiteracy rate from 24.7% in 2001to 16% in 2006 and progressively increase the higher education rates from 23% in2001 to 30% in 2006. In general terms, the four-fold increase in socialexpenditure between 1986 and the year 2000, when it reached 20% of the GDP,should be noted.

Inthe light of these challenges and threats, the privatisation of essentialservices—such as transport—has fundamental negative repercussions on theleast favoured levels of the population, but also on the middle classes, whichare the backbone of social stability in Tunisia and seem to be increasinglythreatened. Wage earners also fear the prospect of supporting the cost of healthinsurance and are worried about procedures to install a citizen-financededucational system, even in the framework of what is commonly called “theschool of tomorrow.”

Thepoorest population, which according to official figures includes nearly half amillion people, will be the most affected, in particular in inland zones of thecountry (where poverty reaches 11.7% in the southeast of Tunisia). Despite theeffort of numerous and diverse official institutions to promote services tobenefit the neediest sectors or those who live from a parallel market, theirscant coordination causes numerous irregularities in management and lessenstheir effectiveness.


Thesechallenges and dangers demand a commitment by civil society that must act toinsure keeping the advantages achieved. However, as indicated in the NationalReport on Human Development (1999), one of the greatest weaknesses of theTunisian experience is the lack of evolution in civil society participation indecision-making, be this in economic, social or political life. The result isthat the margin of public freedom is narrow—in particular, freedom oforganisation and expression—and any excess beyond the limits imposed ispersecuted.[4]

Thedevelopment associations and organisations in defence of human and women’srights face such difficulties that their participation in the debate on economicdecisions and defence of citizen social rights is limited or even prevented. Theinstitutions devoted to the social context suffer from a lack of democracy intheir internal operation, which removes them from the masses (in this respect,see the economic and social report by the Tunisian General Workers Union). Forthis reason, civil society is unable to exert pressure on the government toprevent decisions being made that are contrary to the interests of the majority.



[2] Republic of Tunisia. Brief outline of the Tenth Development Plan 2002-2006.

[3] The Multifibre Agreement regarding International Trade in Textiles (MFA) is an internationally agreed on derogation of GATT rules which enables the signatory countries to apply quantitative restrictions on textile imports when it considers that they are necessary to prevent disorganisation of the market, even when such restrictions are contrary to GATT regulations. As from 2005, all the MFA will have to suscribe to GATT regulations.

[4] In March 2001, Amnesty International called on the Tunisian authorities to halt what they described as an escalation of unprecedented persecution incidents against human rights activists. In a new report AI pointed out that the pressure campaign started when the Tunisian League of Human Rights was suspended in November 2000. Since that date all meetings of the members of the League have been prevented by security services. The report also states that legal procedures had been lauched against the president of the League for Human Rights, Moktar Trifi and against other authorities.
The author is grateful to Ms. Souhayr Belhassen.