Tunisia shifts towards new economy
Tunisia’s government took on a younger look in January, when the country’s president, Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, instituted a major shakeout of his cabinet and many of the key positions in the North African country’s civil service and public sector. The shakeout brought 19 new ministers into the cabinet, including 17 members who had never served before. Particularly noticeable was the increased number of secretaries of state—or junior ministers—whose number jumped from 11 to 24.
Furthermore, the number of women in the cabinet increased also from four to five. The portfolios held by women now include the key positions of minister of employment and vocational training, and the newly created position of secretary of state to the minister of social affairs.
The most notable changes occurred at the ministry of defense, with the appointment of Dali Jazi as minister, and at the ministry of the interior, where the position went to Abdallah Kaabi. Changes also took place at the ministries of youth, children and sports; the ministry of education; the ministry of social affairs; the ministry of tourism, entertainment and handicrafts; the ministry of vocational training and employment; the ministry of public health; the ministry of commerce; the ministry of environment and territorial management; and with the ministerial-rank position of secretary general of the government.
Nonetheless, despite the wide-scale changes, Ben Ali maintained stability among his inner circle. Holding on to their jobs were Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia, and Finance Minister Taoufik Baccar. Among the most important new appointments in the civil service were Mohamed Ali Daouas, as governor of Tunisia's Central Bank; Chedli Neffati, as chairman of the Economic and Social Council; and Mohamed Raouf Najjar, as chairman of the Audit Office.
The common characteristics among the new technocrats are that they all younger than the officials who preceded them, and they possess the practical skills to assist more senior ministers in the implementation of economic reforms. Daouas, the new central bank governor, for example, is a 40-year-old who had served as the deputy to the previous governor, Mohamed Beji Hamda, for the past three years.
Daouas and his team of equally youthful officials will play a key role in carrying out Tunisia’s development program for 2001, of which the most important priorities are the need to further boost private investment, accelerate growth, and control Tunisia’s internal and external financial balances.
Aggregate investment is expected to rise 10 percent to 7.76 billion Tunisian dinars ($5.8 billion) in 2001, with the private sector’s share expected to increase to 55 percent, up from 52.6 percent last year. GDP growth is projected to reach 6.2 percent in 2001, an improvement over last year’s figure of five percent. Per capita income is expected to increase from TD 2,771 ($1,872) in 2000 to TD 2,939 ($1,985) in 2001. In 2000, Tunisia reported exports worth about eight billion dollars, 14.9 percent more than in 1999. Imports rose by 16.5 percent to stand at $11.7 billion. Particularly notable was a 94.3 percent increase in energy exports.
The Tunisian president is linking much of his economic reform program to the new economy. Last November, in an address to the nation that he delivered to mark the 13th anniversary of his accession to the presidency, Ben Ali announced a number of major decisions that in time should change the economic profile of the country.
One of these was lowering Internet service subscription for journalists in particular, but also for the public at large. Also, all institutions of learning and research and all medical centers across the country were to have been connected to the web, and the e-Dinar, the virtual version of Tunisia's national currency was launched.
Ben Ali said that middle-income families—which, according to official estimates, make up 80 percent of the country’s citizens—will be able to apply for micro credit bank loans to purchase low-cost computers.
Ben Ali also inaugurated an “Internet bus” containing a mobile classroom equipped with 13 laptop computers and an overhead projector. The bus, which is linked to the Web via satellite, is to travel through the state’s rural areas in order to introduce local residents to the Internet.
The country’s economic expansion will be led in part by the telecommunications sector. Indeed, it was no coincidence that two of the women that were appointed to high level positions in the public sector this January were Khedija Ghariani, named director general of Tunisia-Telecom, and Ferial Beji who was made the chairperson and general manager of the Tunisian Internet Agency.
Tunisia is expected to award its first private GSM mobile telephone license to foreign operators during the first half of 2001. At present, Tunisia Telecom holds the sole GSM license, enjoying a monopoly in the sector. Since Tunisia Telecom began operating the mobile telephone service in 1996, the network’s capacity has grown to approximately 50,000 subscribers. The government has selected a foreign investment bank to advise the authorities in the tender process for the private GSM license.
Such initiatives demonstrate the progressive and innovative mindset that has characterized President Ben Ali’s 13-year tenure. In 1998, Tunisia was the first North African state to sign a trade association accord with the European Union, which has brought with it both opportunities and challenges.
The accord, which provides for a phasing out of tariffs and the gradual opening of the Tunisian market to European goods and services, has already effectively widened Tunisia’s trade deficit, which reached TD 3.72 billion ($2.79 billion) in 2000. — (Albawaba-MEBG)
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)
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