Interim Prime Minister Lays Out Path to a Level Playing Field for All Tunisians
Washington October 5 2011 – Tunisian Prime Minister Béji Caïd Essebsi said that the budget priority switch which his interim government had introduced was designed to turn around the inequalities of a country divided between a prosperous coast and lagging interior regions.
Caïd Essebsi was speaking at the World Bank yesterday in a seminar entitled “Tunisia’s New Path Towards Democracy and Prosperity”, during his official visit to the United States and less than three weeks before Tunisia goes to the polls in its first democratic election. The budget priority switch he referred to was a decision taken by his interim government to begin designating a far greater share of expenditures to the country’s rural interior where 74 percent of the country’s poor citizens live.
There have long been significant disparities between interior and coastal regions, and Tunisia’s revolution was sparked by discontent in under-developed interior regions of the country where income-earning alternatives are few and access to basic services is limited. Unemployment rates in the interior are estimated to be above 18 percent, compared to an estimated 9 percent in coastal regions.
Referring to the elections for a constituent assembly on October 23, Caïd Essebsi spoke with optimism about the future: “For the first time it’s going to be the right start for Tunisia. Our responsibility is to succeed for ourselves but also for the Arab world and the Muslim world. The Arab spring started in Tunisia but it’s not going to be the Arab spring if it stays in Tunisia. The wind of freedom knows no borders.”
He said consensus-making had been critical to the “functional legitimacy” of his interim government and he noted the important role of civil society in Tunisia which was now growing and taking part in the life of the country “more and more.”
“What we do right now can succeed in Tunisia,” he added. “Why? Because we have all the ingredients.” “Education had been free and compulsory in Tunisia for fifty years and unlike other countries Tunisian women have almost the same rights as men. On lists for the upcoming elections, for example, women candidates have parity with men,” he said.
Caïd Essebsi enumerated the challenges facing the new democracy too: the need to build infrastructure into the neglected interior of the country and to facilitate the growth of the private sector to help meet the tremendous job-creation needs, especially among young people.
The event was webcast in three languages from the World Bank’s headquarters and linked to an audience of media and civil society representatives in Tunis.
Inger Andersen, Vice President of the World Bank for the Middle East and North Africa region, welcomed the Prime Minister at this “remarkable watershed moment in Tunisia’s history.”
“We have much to learn from you about Tunisia’s transition,” she said. “And I imagine there are countries across the world, certainly the Arab world, looking to the path Tunisia is setting.”
That path, she said, included fundamental reforms in the areas of access to information, transparency, a level playing field and freedom of association. “All these elements are so deeply valuable to thriving societies. And you are building some of these for the first time. At the Bank we were proud to support these endeavors.”
Caïd Essebsi also had a meeting with World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick to discuss the institution’s continued support to Tunisia.
In June this year the Bank approved a $500 million Governance and Opportunity budget support operation designed to assist Caïd Essebsi’s interim government make demonstrable progress in these areas of transparency and citizen access.