Hope and Perseverance on Tunisia’s Demanding Road Ahead

By Christine Lagarde

(Version in عربي)

Tunisia, the spark that ignited the Arab Spring, was where I spent the past two days. I held official meetings with the new leaders of the country. They spoke about the Freedom and Dignity Revolution, as the Tunisians call it, and of their concerns to ensure a smooth transition to democracy and prosperity.

One year on, it is still extraordinary to think how this dramatic transformation by a grassroots movement has migrated to other countries across the Middle East and North Africa.

Alongside my official visits, I particularly enjoyed a lunch I had with a small group of women, entrepreneurs, professors, and youth activists who spoke passionately about their lives, their commitment, and their hopes for their country.

Since I was appointed head of the International Monetary Fund last July, I have set about visiting all major regions of the world to hear the concerns of our members and understand the issues faced by different countries. Tunisia is the first Arab country I am visiting. I am also going to Saudi Arabia.

Lighting the path ahead

Tunisia is going through an inclusive process of transition, but faces some extraordinary challenges. I have heard from its leaders how Tunisia was the model that paved the way for the Arab Spring, and their firm belief that it remains capable of lighting the path forward for other countries going through historic changes in the region.

I listened carefully to their leaders and to the women. One cannot but respect the determination and passion with which both leaders and people want to make this historic transformation succeed.

In all revolutions, a period of unease and impatience inevitably follows the initial heady successes. The turbulent world economy has added an extra dimension of uncertainty to an already difficult year.

Youth bearing the brunt

I told Tunisian CEOs and representatives of the banking sector that Tunisia faces deteriorating public finances, a widening current account deficit, and lingering problems in the banking sector, and there is widespread anxiety about the cost of living and trade.

The upheavals of the past year have given renewed urgency to the need to counter chronic joblessness, particularly among the young people. Unemployment in Tunisia has risen sharply from an already high base. It is now estimated at 18 percent, with youth unemployment at over 40 percent. We must remember that economic development is not an end by itself; it is only a means to enrich peoples’ lives.  And nothing enriches like gainful employment. It is also a source of dignity, mobility, and hope.

The government and private sector must work in harmony to boost investment, productivity, and create jobs. Tunisia, unfortunately, is facing additional challenges stemming from the looming debt crisis in the Euro zone.

Challenges in year ahead

The key challenges for the coming year will be to ensure social cohesion while maintaining macroeconomic stability. To that end, ensuring adequate financing is a top priority. Capital markets will likely provide only a small part of these funds – and at a higher cost. So, regional partners and the broader international community will also be called upon to provide financial support. The IMF is ready to do its part.

The road ahead will be long and demanding, but I remain hopeful. The country that is so famous for its diversity and love for freedom, will succeed in overcoming the hardships.

The magnificent ceramics that shroud the buildings of the capital Tunis, the mosaics that go back hundreds of years and that have survived wars and conflicts are but a reflection of that diverse culture that must be preserved and respected. This is an image I will take with me from Tunis, together with the strength of my Tunisian women friends!

3 Responses

  1. “. . . to their leaders and to the women.” No women leaders then? I thought that this was a revolution?

    “. . . historic transformation succeed”. It depends what the criteria are for success doesn’t it and who sets the terms?

    From where I see it, the Arab spring simply changes one set of strong men who were to some extent dependent on the West for their lifestyles and international respectability for another set that perhaps is less dependent on the West and its values.

    Your last paragraph about culture you should send to your friend M. Guéant in France.

    Samar Samir Mezghanni, a nice post. What you should remember is that we are all basically the same people hiding behind something whether it’s a title or wikipedia entry or burqa. And yes I agree with you about social issues.

    Keep wearing high heels, they make women look better than they normally do. A few hundred years ago, men used to wear them too but we seem to have lost our capacity to merge the sexes.

    Anyway keep supporting Christine because she is a good person and needs support: it’s a difficult job representing the IMF and women at the same time.

  2. It is quite astonishing how the Arab Spring has spread all over the Middle East and North Africa. People fighting for freedom and equality, they are fighting for their rights. What is more important is the fact that women in these countries have been at the forefront of the “revolutions”. They want to see changes; they believe their countries are able to transform and introduce new rights and reformation for women. We all know that globalization has badly affected women, and that there is a gender issue within globalization.

    But as Madame Lagarde states, the tough years are yet to come, the uprising is spreading and promises of changes seem to be hopeful; changes that are really necessary to bring peace and social-economic stability. The real challenge, as Madame Lagarde says, is to “ensure social cohesion while maintaining macroeconomic stability”.

    I read that the IMF is ready to help economically –- as is the IMF’s job -– and that this help is a financial support in the amount of about $35 billion to the region’s oil-importing countries. Now, I couldn’t help noticing the words “oil-importing”, and as far as “I’m informed” (and I may be badly misinformed) the conflicts that these countries have seen through the year is because they are rich in oil. Now I’m not assuming or stating anything! It just worries me that economic help that the IMF is providing might be misused or also might be interpreted as a “threat” for other countries (nations, international organizations) –- the oil-importing regions will now have the financial assets to manage their own resources -– and some countries prefer that the oil-importing regions stay like they always were (in constant conflict). My question will be, is this financial support really regulated by the IMF? Will the IMF have constant monitoring of the use of this financial support?

    The reason I write all this is because I have a lack of understanding about the international outlook; my view of international affairs is quite poor and narrow (it can be seen above with my writing). I reply to these blog (comment) in the hope to amplify my view of the world, and all the economic issues that are affecting the world (the economic crisis).

    I state again, I’m not attacking nor criticizing the IMF! I’m not making any assumptions about the IMF nor the Arab Spring! As I said before my view of the international outlook is quite poor and narrow!

    Thank you!

  3. Lunch with Madame Lagarde, dinner with Monsieur Mourad
    Samar Samir Mezghanni

    Today, I had lunch with Madame Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, one of the most influential international organizations in the world. Right after lunch, I met Monsieur Mourad, the electrician and guard of the National Institution of Heritage in Tunis, one of the most beautiful historical houses in the country. Mme Lagarde is visiting Tunisia for a couple of days and she was interested to meet people from the business and civil society sectors over a lunch by the beach to learn more about the post-revolution challenges and ambitions. Her visit is a very important event. Mr. Mourad lives in Tunisia, he was interested to meet me because I need to hire 100 seats for an event I’m organizing next week and he is helping me with materials. He took me to the places where you can find all what you need to make an event important.

    The lunch was in a posh restaurant in La Marsa (a posh area in Tunis) called The Gulf (because almost everything posh is somehow related to the Gulf!). There were ten women on the table, all directors of bank agencies and professors of economy in universities. I arrived few minutes late and felt quiet embarrassed. We were well dressed and I was feeling a little uncomfortable in my high heels. And when the waiter was serving me water while one of the professors was talking about specific macro-economic policies, I wondered why I was there and thought that if the lunch lasts long, I will be late again for the other appointment with Mr. Mourad in a down town crowded popular area called Bab El Khadhra (referring to a historical door in the old siege of the city).

    I sat there quiet and attentive. The conversation on the table was… interesting, I suppose. At some point, I thought that it wasn’t and that everyone was just pretending to be interested, or maybe that’s just how I felt. The businesswomen and directors of bank agencies were talking about micro-credits. They looked all bright, smart and carrying a lot of numbers in their heads. Almost before we get dessert, I managed to introduce myself to everyone. Just when I mentioned that I write stories to children, a new identity popped out on the table and the invitees started to ask me about the books I write to buy them for their children.
    Few seconds after that, we were talking about society, Islamism and human rights!

    The numbers in our heads became stories of individuals we met, those who are affected by decisions they can’t influence, those who don’t understand the mechanisms of the system but reckon that there is something wrong with it, those who feel threatened by policies they don’t know and they can’t change. I got a pen and wrote down some notes.

    “People here are conservative. This is the profound origins of the capital. I was born here and wherever I go, I feel that this is the safest place in the city. You know, you can come here at 11pm and have dinner without worries”. Mourad was referring to veiled women in Bab El Khadhra when he was talking about “conservative locals”. He said that women who wear veils are not necessarily religious but they are conservative and respectful people who had a good social education. I was walking with him in the dirty tiny broken roads in Bab El Khadhra neighborhood with uncovered hair wondering about my social norms and education. How do you pack values in pieces of clothes?

    I gave up trying to keep my fancy suit and shoes clean and hoped that people will not notice how unsuitable my clothes were in such a context. I would have loved to go home and change before going to meet Mourad, but I didn’t want to be late again.
    Mourad has a two-year old daughter, he told me. Christine has two sons, Wikipedia told me. They both shared a remarkable memory with me today. Christine was wearing a red beautiful dress and while we were drinking coffee by the sea, she told me that there should be new innovative ways to reach people whose voices are not heard, to bridge the gap between those who feel that wearing niqab is a right and those who see it as a threat to women’s rights, to facilitate the communication between people who hold key positions in institutions and those who are just guarding institutions.
    Madame Lagarde knew about Mourad, because I told her. But Mourad didn’t know her. When I asked him if he knows Christine Lagarde, he looked confused. We were at that moment searching for good places to rent microphones. He asked me who she was and I told him she is a famous French woman. He asked: “you mean… an artist?”

    In the artistic imitation of life during lunch, we didn’t realize how much issues we were missing just because we wanted to talk about economic challenges, policies and solutions. It is when we saw a book for children I wrote when there was a code switching and social issues were brought to the table. I suggest that we always have children books on the tables of decision makers; that will remind us of the real needs and worries of the future generations.

    Today, was inspiring. I had a good lunch in a La Marsa with Madame Lagarde. I had a kind invitation for a dinner in Bab El Khadhra with Monsieur Mourad. One day, I will grow older and share a meal with inspiring people leading institutions and others guarding them… on the same table.

    Samar Samir Mezghanni
    02/02/2012

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