Tunisia has warned that its disaffected youth will be more likely to join Isis if the country does not receive financial support from Europe and the US.
The north African country’s vital tourism industry is still reeling from the killings of dozens of holidaymakers by Isis militants in two attacks in 2015. Tunisia, which is thought to have supplied the largest contingent of foreign fighters to the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq, also repelled a border attack by Libya-based Isis jihadis in March.
With an unemployment rate of 15.6 per cent — and twice that for university graduates and those under 25 — Tunisia needed help to stave off the militant threat, Mohamed Fadhel Abdelkefi, minister of development, investment and international co-operation, said on Wednesday during a visit to London.
“We have 650,000 unemployed. Half of them are highly qualified. How can we explain to these guys that we have gone through this democratisation process and they are unemployed for three or four years, and as a government we have no solution for them?
“So these guys will listen more to people like Daesh [Isis]. When desperation increases they may turn to Daesh, so we have to find a solution. We have to provide them with hope.”
Without help, Mr Abdelkefi said, in 20 years “we could be another dictatorship, it could be turmoil”.
Tunisia is regarded as the sole success story of the Arab Spring when Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator, was overthrown and replaced by a functioning, if tumultuous, democracy that has already seen six governments in five years.
Mr Abdelkefi, a former private equity executive and president of the board of the Tunis Stock Exchange, said the west was in danger of jeopardising one of the few positive role models for the Muslim world.
“As the only Arab and Muslim country to set up a full democracy, we can say Islam and democracy are not in opposition. If you solve the economic situation of Tunisia, you would find tomorrow an example to give the Muslim world,” he said.
“On my right [in the government] I have an Islamist, on my left someone from the union and in front someone from the liberal side of the country.
“People are investing money in Afghanistan, in Iraq. It’s less expensive to invest in Tunisia than to transform Afghanistan. We have a peaceful country of 11m people. There is a big frustration from the population,” added Mr Abdelkefi.
Tunisia’s five-year national development plan, focused on industries such as aircraft and car components, textiles, tourism, health and education, is dependent on investment of $60bn, 60 per cent of which it hopes to raise from the private sector.
It has enacted a new investment code, offering tax breaks and a more streamlined process for foreign direct investment, and paved the way for public-private partnerships in areas such as wind and solar power, a proposed metro system for Sfax, the second city, and a deepwater port at Enfidha.
An Economic Emergency Law, offering additional incentives to private companies that invest in the next three years, is also before parliament.
“We need investment, not donations,” said Mr Abdelkefi. Since the revolution 500 foreign companies have left the country, dragging economic growth down to about 2 per cent and widening the budget deficit.
“We have tariff-free market access to Europe, the most educated workforce in Africa, exporters do not pay taxes and we will be the platform for reconstruction of Libya.”
Longer term, Mr Abdelkefi holds out hope that Tunisia could be admitted to the EU.
“We are exactly in the situation of eastern Europe [after the fall of communism] without being Christian and without being in Europe. We want to be treated like eastern Europe. We can ask to be a member of the EU.”
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