Conference on Democracy Proposes More Market Solutions

Minister of Development, Investment, and International Cooperation Zied Laadhari (second from left) speaks at a conference entitled “The Resilience of Democracy in a Troubling Economy,” in Tunis on Friday, September 20, 2019. Photo by George Gale.

A day-long conference funded by the Italian Foreign Ministry on the topic of “The Resilience of Democracy in a Troubling Economy,” held in Tunis on Friday, September 20, hosted a minister, politicians, and scholars who presented analyses of and solutions to Tunisia’s economic challenges.

Many of the solutions proposed included calls for Tunisia to further liberalize its trade, privatize investment, and deregulate to promote entrepreneurship—policy solutions largely associated with a market-fundamentalist economic philosophy known as neoliberalism.

“Our country is small. It has to open to the world,” Zied Laadhari, Tunisia’s Minister of Development, Investment and International Cooperation since September 2017 and a politician from the Ennahdha party, told the audience at the Sheraton hotel.

Laadhari, speaking during the day’s final panel event on the topic of “A lively democracy: Tunisian Political Parties’ Responses to the Economic Crisis,” also strongly advocated for public private partnerships (PPPs)—a system whereby a private company will extract resources, build infrastructure, or provide services in a sector previously owned and/or managed by the state.

For Laadhari, PPPs are a way for Tunisia to develop its solar power resources that “doesn’t need the state to invest”; in his opinion, more state investment would require taking on more loans.

This month, Tunisia is expected to announce the winner of a 500 megawatt solar energy tender that would produce solar energy and presumably sell it to the Tunisian state or consumers directly. Tunisia’s Minister of Industry, Slim Feriani, had announced in June that most of the 16 shortlisted bids for this tender were from Europe, and apparently none were from Tunisia or other African countries.

The legal framework regulating the development of Tunisia’s solar energy potential through private investment was developed before Laadhari took up his current ministerial post, including “law n° 12-2015 of 11 May 2015, relating to the production of electricity from renewable energies, and the regulatory decree of 24 August 2016,” according to a report by the Tunisian Observatory for Economy (OTE) published in April 2019.

The OTE report by researcher Imen Louati found that liberalization and privatization measures in this sector have diminished the role of the state energy company, the Tunisian Company of Electricity and Gas (STEG by its French acronym). The OTE report notes that “these liberalizing measures have caused discontent and reticence among civil society and the STEG trade union who feel they are better placed than foreign investors to take charge of this type of project.”

Laadhari cited as one of his ideological influences, particularly for his belief in PPPs, the book “Why Nations Fail,” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson.  Others at the conference cited other influences, such as Samuel Huntington.

“Tunisia is an experiment fuelled by foreign aid. But this is not a bad thing in my opinion. It happened in Italy too after World War II and it went well. Sit back and enjoy,” Emanuele Felice, Professor of Economic Policy and Economic History at the University of Chieti-Pescara told the largely Tunisian audience.

Felice’s comments came after he had provided a summary of Samuel Huntington’s ideas on democracy development. Huntington’s best known work, “The Clash of Civilizations,” was famously critiqued by Edward Said, who wrote that Huntington’s thesis was “a gimmick…better for reinforcing defensive self-pride than for critical understanding of the bewildering interdependence of our time.” Said also criticized the thesis in a lecture on the “Myth of the ‘Clash of Civilizations.’”

Huntington’s theory experienced renewed attention and popularity following the launching of the so-called “Global War on Terror” after the September 11, 2001 attacks. One of the two host organizations of Friday’s conference, ResetDOC: Dialogues on Civilizations, appears to have been founded with Huntington’s theory in mind, as the organization’s website says in its “Who We Are” section that it was “founded after 9/11– in the mid [sic] of the global debate over the ‘clash of civilizations’ – by a group of scholars with different cultural and religious backgrounds.”

ResetDOC, which is a Milan-based organization, cohosted the event with the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, a Tunis-based group.

The event also featured a presentation on the topic of “The Vulnerability of Youth in Tunisia.” The presenter, Mouez Soussi, called young people in Tunisia leaving school and entering the labor market with high unemployment a “ticking time bomb.”

Panelists offered many ideas for improving Tunisia’s economy but most presentations did not include specific policies proposals. Several key buzzwords introduced by panelists included “innovation,” “entrepreneurship”, “creative destruction”, making Tunisia a “hub” for investment in Africa by “changing the nature of [Tunisia’s] airports,” and examining—but not necessarily investing in—high-tech industries such as artificial intelligence and robotics.