Joblessness, rural neglect: time bombs for new Tunisia

A priority task for Tunisia's new rulers is how to defuse two time-bombs left over by the ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime: joblessness and rural neglect, according to several economists.

And they agree that lasting economic growth is essential if the new interim government of Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi is to succeed.

"Lasting growth is vital for the success of this transition, but this will take time," said economist Abdeljelil Bedoui.

The December 17 self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young street vendor from the central Sidi Bouzid region whose action sparked a revolt that led to Ben Ali's ouster, was a graphic illustration of the despair felt by Tunisia's youths.

Economist Mahmoud Ben Romdhane pointed out that the jobless rate among the country's university graduates exceeds 33 percent nationwide, roughly 200,000 people, and will be close to 60 percent in Sidi Bouzid this year .

And he expects the problem to worsen as "every year, 80,000 graduates enter the job market while the economy in its current structure can offer a maximum of 40,000 jobs."

While a World Bank report last October praised Tunisia as a regional economic success story, the International Monetary Fund last week warned the country may have to scale back its growth forecast from five percent to 3-4 percent this year.

The IMF had long stressed the high level of Tunisian unemployment, 14 percent for the general population but double that for those under 25, as a major problem for the country.

Another major issue facing the interim government is the neglect of the country's rural areas.

"Tunisia has suffered since independence in 1956 from 'an economic racism' which has triggered the revolt of those left out in predominantly rural areas," said analyst Khemaies Krimi.

As an example, he noted that the government in 2004 launched an economic development plan that concentrated investments on coastal areas to the detriment of the rest of the country.

"We could not tell whether we were dealing with a liberal or feudal economy controlled by a political-financial mafia centered around the the ruling party and the police," he said referring to the Ben Ali family and entourage who controlled most economic sectors.

Romdhane meanwhile lambasted what he called "an arrogant, corrupt ruling class that despises the people" and a "phenomenal rise of corruption over the past five years" with the Ben Ali clan controlling banks, the media, real estate and telecommunications.

"In the medium term, we must drastically review our education and economic policy so that the system can generate qualified jobs at faster pace," he noted.

And he advocated a "new national scheme to provide infrastructures to marginalized regions" coupled with the immediate launch of a vast public construction program.

Last week, the interim government said it would earmark 260 millions euros (330 million dollars) for the poorest rural areas and said it would give long-term jobless graduates a monthly allowance of 78 euros.

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