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On the occasion of the elections in Tunisia and the recently issued results, we interviewed Bodo Lieberam, CEO of MicroCred Tunisie, a professional in the field of worldwide microfinance and living in the Country for a few years.
The secular party Nidaa Tounès won the elections in Tunisia while the Islamist party Ennhadha showed a sharp decline. What are in your opinion the main consequences of this choice of the Tunisian people both for the political life and for the economic and social life?
As General Manager of a foreign company I am happy with the results of these elections. Sixty per cent of the population voted and they opted for a democratic path. There have been no terrorist attacks or incidents during the voting, and Tunisia has shown the will to embark on a progressive path and move towards a closer relationship with Europe and with other partners. I believe that it is important to involve Ennhadha in the government formation, as they got 69 seats, and they would be less proactive towards the opposition than the contribution they could make if they were integrated into the government. I believe, however, that the popular choice is the best way to ensure that Tunisia will grow and develop in all areas.
In recent years you have worked in Tunisia, during a time of great changes and upheavals, what is the situation today from your point of view?
Most Tunisians were very happy with the “revolution”, but they were not ready or prepared to live the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Tunisia was like a teenage boy leaving the parental home without really knowing how to live on his own. There has been much confusion in the public administration and everything was slow. After nearly four years, the country is more mature and has learned how to handle things itself. After all, the Tunisians have seen what happened in Egypt, where the country quickly became an unmanageable chaos after the uprising and where, in the end, the leaders decided to abandon the path previously taken. In Tunisia, there is a very strong will on the part of liberal and Islamist parties to dialogue and find common solutions to avoid what happened in Egypt. This dialogue seems to lead to productivity and the election results are a proof. Now I see a promising future for this country.
Will there be a real intention of the new government to put into place measures that create a solid foundation that can improve the social and economic context of Tunisia?
The will certainly exists. Leaders are aware of the problems of the country, such as youth unemployment, and they really want to improve the situation. But it is clear that there is no magic solution and that it will take time to show concrete results. However, I am confident that the various initiatives – such as for example, the opening to microfinance – can have a positive impact in the medium term both socially and economically.
You work on microfinance in Tunisia, like in other African and Asian countries. Your mission and your goals are to improve the living conditions of people excluded from the formal banking sector and financial institutions and to combat poverty. What is the situation in Tunisia?
The main problem is youth unemployment particularly in disadvantaged areas of the interior of the country. It is estimated that after the revolution, the unemployment rate of young graduates has soared to stand more than 30% and in some regions it reaches up to almost 50%. It is estimated that about 15% of the population – 1.6 million Tunisians source Banque Africaine de Développement – is below the poverty line. This is why MicroCred offers the opportunity to find solutions, mold beneficiaries, accompaning them and financing them in order to create entrepreneurial activities; it is a specific program that we do not offer in other countries. We note, however, that young people often do not have a real desire to escape from the status quo. Their dream is rather to be employed by the government and to lead a quiet and safe life, rather than embark on their own business and take risks. Therefore our role is also to promote entrepreneurship among the population. The business culture is not yet as developed in Tunisia as well as in other Arab countries, except for Lebanon.
As a westerner and as a professional of the microfinance field, how have you experienced the aftermath of the Arab Spring?
I arrived in Tunisia after January 14, 2011. I have experiences the aftermath of the “revolution” that has generated a lot of expectations and a lot of hope, but also a lot of clutter. After some time since then, I’ve heard quite often the phrase “it was better before”. In the era of Ben Ali perhaps this was true with regard to physical security. Subsequently, the country experienced a period of decline in which many have lost property and privileges and seen a worsening of the economic situation, although today the situation has improved slightly, possibly leading to a state of further social decay.
To conclude, the results of Tunisian elections could have an influence on the rest of the Arab world that now more than ever is in full swing bringing in changes: what is your vision about the political and economic future throughout the Arab region?
I hope that is so. Right now, Tunisia is the only country in the Arab world that has taken the path of democracy, succeeding in bringing together the different political forces. Now other countries have the opportunity to observe what happened in Tunisia and consider whether such a path can be good for them too. It’s clear, however, that at the moment it seems unlikely to happen. Everything depends on the will of the different political movements to communicate and reach an agreement. In Tunisia this seems to be an unmarked point while elsewhere it seems to be a much more difficult obstacle to overcome. Nevertheless, the Tunisian case which has created a new constitution and which has proven to be able to guarantee democratic elections, shows that it is possible and should signal hope for other countries across the whole Arab region.
Translated from Italian by Irene Tuzi