October 4, 2011 – Eight months after a youth-led revolution toppled the government, Interim Tunisian Prime Minister Béji Caïd Essebsi said the country is on the “right track” towards democracy and greater economic opportunity.
Caïd Essebsi spoke at the World Bank in Washington before an audience of Executive Directors, the institution’s staff, civil society representatives, and journalists. The event was webcast in Arabic, French and English.
Caïd Essebsi said he hoped upcoming October 23 elections would be free and democratic and that the “Arab Spring” unleashed by events in his country would inspire others.
“Our responsibility is to succeed in this transition, for us and for the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, because what others have referred to as the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, but it won’t be the Arab Spring if it stays only in Tunisia,” said Caïd Essebsi. “The winds of liberty don’t respect borders.”
The 84-year-old prime minister, in Washington to meet with US President Barrack Obama on October 7, thanked World Bank Group President Robert Zoellick for the institution’s support “during a difficult time in Tunisia.” The Bank approved $500 million in June for governance reforms and economic opportunities, and in July the Bank Group’s Small Business Finance Facility made its first loan to the country.
Inger Andersen, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa, praised the interim prime minister for his efforts to create a more open and democratic society. Tunisia’s success would set an example for the world, she said.
Caïd Essebsi said a new Tunisian government will move to build economic equality and infrastructure after October 23 elections. He said 80% of the country’s budget would be allocated to poor regions in the interior of the country, where young people took to the streets to demand freedom and democracy last December.
The country’s major challenges include large numbers of educated young people who can’t find jobs amid a zero-growth economy. Caïd Essebsi said the country needs an economic strategy that can sharply reduce the number of unemployed by 100,000 a year for the next five years, while boosting the private sector.
After the dissolution of the government of former President Ben Ali in January, 2011, Tunisia’s transition government sought assistance from the World Bank, indicating it wanted a clear break with the past, said World Bank Tunisia Country Director Simon Gray. The government requested assistance to create a more open and accountable government, boost employment in lagging regions, and strengthen the governance of the financial sector, he said.
The World Bank, African Development Bank, Agence Francaise de Developpement, and the European Union supported the country’s efforts to address issues such as freedom of association, participation in regulatory reform, freedom of access to information., gathering feedback on government services, and short-term employment programs to help skilled and unskilled workers find jobs.
Longer term, the Bank Group expects to help the country strengthen the private sector, the labor market, and innovation.
“We have ongoing dialogue and we do hope that with the new government coming in and after the Constituent Assembly is formed, we’ll be in a good position to take that forward, but always with a view of inclusiveness and governance and allowing transparency and accountability more in the whole process,” said Gray.