In Tunisia, the business community awaiting a course and reforms

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Tunisian President KaÏs Saïed during a state visit to Qatar in November 2020.

“I will hunt down speculators wherever they are, even underground. ” At the end of August, the Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed, who has made the fight against corruption and speculation one of his creeds since his coup on July 25.

However, despite the numerous field visits or the spectacular seizures – the number of customs searches has doubled since he assumed full powers – economic circles are struggling to see clearly about the president’s strategy. If there were many, before July 25, to denounce the political blockages undermining a country in the grip of a serious socio-economic crisis, they are just as many to wonder today about the change of course announced by Kaïs Saïed.

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During the summer, travel bans imposed on several businessmen and officials sparked tension and criticism from civil society, with some organizations denouncing measures “Arbitrary”. Finally, on Friday, September 17, the president ordered the Interior Ministry to limit this sanction to people who are the subject of legal proceedings.

“There was nevertheless a listening and a dialogue with the presidency on this question”, estimates Taieb Ketari, member of the executive board of the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts (Utica, the employers’ union), evoking a “Cautious optimism” within his organization, which has remained very discreet for the time being. “Many share the idea that economic recovery will only go through the private sector, this is the story we have heard from the authorities but also from donors”, he insists.

Stigma campaigns

Many business leaders are nevertheless worried about a political situation which remains confused, while Tunisia is still deprived of a head of government, a Parliament and a road map. A vagueness which is not without consequences on the business climate. “We can see it at the level of suppliers, there is a fear in the face of the political instability of the country: I am asked for additional guarantees”, testifies Farouk Zouhir, industrial in hygiene products. Investment funds with which he was in discussion before July 25 are “Today much more cautious”, he remarks.

While recognizing “The will of the presidency to change things”, the entrepreneur regrets that this leads to stigmatization campaigns and measures that seem to be taken in haste. He cites the decision of the Ministry of Commerce to impose fixed margins on wholesalers and retailers in his sector in an attempt to lower prices. “However, it is not necessarily in hygiene products that there are the most anti-competitive practices, insists Farouk Zouhir. And the real areas of rent and monopoly have so far been little affected. “ Among these, the agrifood and transport sectors, which are regularly the subject of controversy in Tunisia.

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Others fear that the president, because of his isolation and a lack of relay in economic circles, will not succeed in reforming in depth. “He risks appointing someone who will try to preserve macroeconomic balances for donors but who will not necessarily initiate the restructuring of the Tunisian economy for which we have been advocating for years”, launches an economic expert who wishes to remain anonymous.

“What happened on July 25 was a rectification of the democratic process in a fairly sclerotic economic context that should have been addressed since 2011”, says Fatma Marrakchi Charfi, professor of economics at the Faculty of Economics and Management of Tunis: “But economic reforms do not depend on one person or a country without a government. “

Discussions with the IMF stalled

The choice of the personalities who will take the head of the government and the ministry of finance will undoubtedly make it possible to see more clearly there. The president, who admitted not knowing about economics, is expected to turn on his appointments. Many are hoping for a specialist profile like Marouane Abassi, the current governor of the central bank, whose name has been mentioned several times.

Currently, nothing filters the palace of Carthage despite several urgent files. The 2022 finance law must be tabled in Parliament by October 15 and adopted by December. The country sorely lacks financial leeway, but discussions around a new loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have stalled. For its part, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the trade union center and the main negotiator of social agreements, is growing impatient.

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In this climate of uncertainty, many business leaders urge Kaïs Saïed to move forward. “We can forgive him his few hiccups on the economy because he is honest and he really wants to moralize political and economic life”, says Zied Guiga, co-founder of Wallyscar, a Tunisian car manufacturer. “But the question really remains to know where he wants to go and where he will start”, continues the entrepreneur, who describes the fight against corruption as “Gordian knot, because it is necessary to attack as well the corrupters as the corrupt ones”.

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