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Tunisian Youth Activists Dissect Budget Ahead of Parliamentary Elections

BY Rebecca Chao | Wednesday, October 22 2014

The economic frustrations that led to the revolution still linger (Crethi Plethi/flickr)

In Tunisia, a baguette is both symbol and sustenance. It can be eaten plain, fried, stuffed with eggs and tuna or used to garnish an angry fist at a riot. Protestors clutched baguettes as they stormed the streets in the 1980s against the threat of rising food prices. In 2011, youths brandished them while shouting "dégage!" at their corrupt leader and created the cartoon Captain "Bread" Khobza who fights graft with a ficelle strung across his back. Now, as Tunisia prepares for a parliamentary election on October 26 that will close a period of transitional governance, the economy, which remains largely unchanged since the Arab Spring, is again at issue.

“We cannot talk about the revolution in the past,” says activist Amira Yahyaoui. “It has not finished yet.” Known for her plucky efforts to monitor the National Constituent Assembly -- turning up at private committee meetings, nettling officials with live tweets, taking their attendance and recording their every vote -- she now wants to open up Tunisia's economy too, starting with the state budget.

Amira Yahyaoui (World Economic Forum/flickr)

In 2011, Yahyaoui was exiled in Paris, studying mathematics at Pierre and Marie Curie University, when thousands of protestors ousted Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in almost as many days as years they suffered his dictatorship. The autocrat who had used Yahyaoui as collateral for her family’s activism –- making it impossible for her to attend university in her own country and then revoking her passport when she left to study in France –- was now himself exiled in Saudi Arabia. Three days after he fled, Yahyaoui flew back to Tunis, a city she had not seen since 2006.

Blending her two dissident influences -- her father was a prominent judge whose rants against Ben Ali cost him his job and her cousin was imprisoned for his anti-regime blog -- Yahyaoui often uses the law to strengthen her activism but prefers to let a more global jury to make the final call: the Internet. With doe-eyes rimmed by dark-framed glasses, she is hardly a threatening figure, but she once hurled tweets at Ben Ali from her then-anonymous Twitter account, @Mira404, named after the “error message 404” on banned sites. It was popular then and it still is now. She has 83,600 followers.

After the Arab spring came the Arab winter. Within six weeks, Tunisians drove out another figure from the old regime: Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi who took over as an interim leader and is nicknamed "Monsieur Oui Oui" for his deference to Ben Ali. While protests rocked Tunis’ main avenue Habib Bourguiba and the Casbah, a plaza in the city’s old quarter opposite the prime minister’s office, Yahyaoui prepared to run as a candidate for Sawt Mostakel, an independent youth party.

She did not win. In October, the long-repressed Islamist party Ennahda swept up a startling 41 percent of the seats. The secular and leftist parties trailed behind, with the Congress for the Republic taking 14 percent and Ettakatol with 10 percent.

Yahyaoui carried on. She arranged for the Assembly to meet with youths and get their input for the drafting of the constitution. She spoke out forcefully against the draft constitution that emerged over the summer of 2012 that made women “complementary” and not equal to men. She nudged the Assembly twice about releasing administrative documents according to a new transparency law. The documents never came so she sued the Assembly with the new law instead. And for good measure, she whammed the government with a series of access to information requests. Finally, it occurred to her, if the law would not grant her access then she would get it herself.

In the summer of 2012, Yahyaoui and six other colleagues walked into Bardo Palace, through the marbled halls, up the stairs to the balcony above the Assembly's hemicircle and sat down. Members would later learn that their votes, which usually remain private, had been tattooed onto the Internet through an app called Marsad or "Observatory." Officials who skipped work that day were rewarded with a special note of absence on their online profile. The backlash was perhaps unsurprising. Several Assembly members tried to block Yahyaoui and her crew from returning but legally, the civil sector is allowed to sit and observe the Assembly. Yahyaoui and her team kept coming back.

Not too long after, curiosity drove the Assembly members to the website. They found there were ways for them to use Marsad too. If a member of Congress for the Republic wanted to see how Ennahda voted for Chadly Ayari as the new governor of the central bank, he could pick a particular official or view the votes by bloc. If a member missed a meeting, he could find all the reports and publications in PDF and download it. And if he had a particularly stellar voting turnout, he could show it off.

Now, some Assembly members turn in medical slips or call Yahyaoui with lengthy explanations about why they missed a vote to maintain their attendance record. For the first time in Tunisia, anyone with an Internet connection could find a comprehensive record of the Assembly’s day-to-day activities; they could call out a member for voting one way and then changing stance the next. Since only 39 percent of the country has Internet access, the Marsad team has been rolling out local observatories for each of the 24 governorates and broadcasting information over the radio.

Marsad documents every Assembly vote (screenshot)

Yahyaoui may have succeeded in changing the minds of 217 officials with her Assembly “sit-ins,” but the bloated and corrupt economic structures under Ben Ali remain largely intact. For every Yahyaoui, there is another woman without work: 41.9 percent of all female college graduates are unemployed. While 15.3 percent of the country is jobless, youth are hardest hit. One in three are out of work and neither in school nor job training.

On October 10, to prepare for the upcoming election, Yahyaoui and her crew launched the initial phase of the Marsad Budget, an observatory to peer into the country's economic and financial matters. Based largely on documents they obtained from access to information filings, the new site provides a roster of employees in every government ministry, offers downloadable data sets of ministry financials, and outlines the allocation of funding to management expenses, such as salaries, and development projects. The site also grades each ministry with zero to four stars based on the clarity and robustness of its access to information process. And it operates in both Arabic and French.

Marsad Budget shows how much each ministry received in 2014 (screenshot)

Marsad Budget, like the original Assembly observatory, is full of bright, interactive visuals that convey complicated numbers in clear, instantly digestible figures. Right away, it is obvious that nearly every ministry budgets twice or three times more for management than development. This year, public sector wages will increase by 800 million dinars (US$686,371) and take up one-third of a 28 billion (US$15.6 billion) budget. With concern, the Minister for Economic Affairs Nidhal Ouerfelli stated last week, “We cannot continue in this way if we want to revive the economy and create growth by financing development projects and infrastructure.”

Tunisia also suffers from a swelling budget deficit that has risen to 6.9 percent of GDP this year with two thirds of it held by foreign countries and multinational organizations like the World Bank. The Marsad Budget has pointed this out with graphs and bar charts but also notes: there is good debt and bad debt. Borrowing to fund development projects, invest in public infrastructure and support entrepreneurship will help the economy start moving again. But public wages and operating costs are like junk food that will make the country grow the wrong way – heavy and slow.

Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa stated recently that he would trim the deficit with “tax changes and subsidy cuts” and “three years of painful reforms.” But cutting subsidies to food items – currently staples like bread, milk, and flour – may retrigger the discontent that brought citizens out onto the streets in 2011. The price of bananas and coffee beans are twice as high than in the global market. It costs 30 to 50 percent more to make an international call in Tunisia than elsewhere in the world. A country survey taken after the Jasmine Revolution revealed that 58 percent protested for economic reasons, 36 percent because of government failures and 6 percent to establish an Islamic regime.

The Marsad Budget uses the image of a baguette, subdivided and shaded, to illustrate how the government subsidizes food items and how it affects poverty. Only 9.2 percent of subsidies are granted to the poor -- though they are said to make up 25 percent of the population -- while 7.5 percent are granted to the rich. It is no surprise then that the per capita subsidy is also distastefully unequal: the government spends 68,000 dinares per poor person and 89,100 dinares per rich.

While Prime Minister Jomaa has blamed the revolution for causing the economy to stagnate -- tourism took a hit in 2011 and foreign direct investment declined by 17 percent -- the World Bank has a harsher assessment. In a report issued in May, it wrote that Tunisia was “clearly a system asphyxiated by its own corruption.” Inequalities and unemployment persist because in the last three years the government has not been able to abolish cronyism and reform regulations that prop up unproductive state owned enterprises, limit business licenses, and overall, hamper competition and drive up consumer costs. The assets of Ben Ali and his crony clan, 113 relatives and friends, were valued at $13 billion or one quarter of the Tunisian GDP in 2014. Every person in Tunisia could receive US$1,230, or 25 percent of an average annual salary, if that money is distributed.

Illustrating how subsidies work with a baguette (screenshot)

In 2009, young tech entrepreneur Ramzi El Fekih felt the sting of Tunisia's rigged economic system. Three weeks before the launch of his mobile banking company ViaMobile, which would fold the millions of unbanked into the financial system, the central bank issued a warning that the project could not proceed until “further notice.” There was no other explanation.

El Fekih told the World Bank, “We’d done everything by the book, so there was no reason to stop it. We knew something was going on.” The word in financial circles was that the son-in-law of Ben Ali, Sakhr El Materi, had planned to set up his own mobile banking service and wanted to squash the competition. After all, as El Fekih points out, “The only way we’re going to be profitable is if we have volume.” It wasn’t until after the revolution that El Fekih finally received a green light.

Economic set backs like these continue to affect post-revolutionary Tunisia where only 50 percent of industries are open to new businesses. Key industries like telecommunications, real estate and air travel make up 21 percent of profits yet only account for less than one percent of jobs. High prices then make it difficult for the other half of the industries open to the free market to compete with foreign firms.

Without a strong private sector, the nonprofit sector suffers too. Civic tech activist Achref Aoudi explained to techPresident back in January that he has been unable to secure the funding he needs for his government monitoring projects because of limited investors. He cannot even crowdfund because Tunisians rarely if ever use credit cards. A robust mobile banking system might have been able to solve his dilemma but it has not yet matured.

Ennahda has been largely blamed for failing to revive the economy and in a promising gesture, has vowed not to field a candidate for presidential elections in late November. However, Ben Ali officials are back on the ballot after being banned during the 2011 elections.

Yahyaoui says the lesson to take away from the revolution and the mismanaged economy over the last three years is that a young democracy needs extra due diligence. Don’t vote simply along party lines, she warns. “Look at [candidates’] careers, their positions, and forget the name of the party. If there is one thing I learned at the [Assembly] meetings is that the good members are everywhere and bad too.”

A famous image from the 1983-84 bread riots in Tunisia (Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)