Signs of life in the Tunisian economy as Italian trading partners resume their activities
TUNIS – At the first post-revolution Italo-Tunisian business forum, which took place last week in Tunis, jasmine flowers were everywhere: scattered on desks and window sills, and even decorating buttonholes on men. The flower – symbol of the Arab Spring – has replaced the photos of former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, in the streets and in all the offices of the Tunisian transitional government.
During this forum, the new Tunisian Minister of Trade and Tourism, Mehdi Houas (who returned from Paris only six months ago) met many Italian businessmen, as well as the Italian Minister of Industry Paolo Romani. “I am here to reassure the Italian business community and also to be reassured by the Tunisian authorities on the next steps towards the transition of a country which is a dear friend of Italy,” Romani told him.
Italy is Tunisia’s second largest trading partner (after France), with a global trade volume of 5.8 billion euros. About 740 Italian companies, which together employ 55,000 people, do business in Tunisia. Italian clothing retailer Benetton, for example, employs 15,000 Tunisians.
“The situation is improving but remains fragile, given that the transitional government has not been legitimized by an election,” sources told the Italian embassy in Tunis. The election to the Constitutional Assembly has been postponed from July 24 to October 24, which some see as a setback. In addition, the war in neighboring Libya – which has pushed nearly 2,000 refugees across the border almost every day – also adds tension. In Tunis, a feeling of insecurity forces people to stay at home after dark. Thousands of former detainees have been released and burglaries have increased. Many people have iron bars installed on their windows. Armored vehicles are parked in front of the national television building.
The collapse of tourism
Many Tunisians are worried about the growing attractiveness of the Islamic party – which according to some polls could win around 20% of the vote – and the high unemployment rate among young people. The collapse of the tourism sector by up to 50% has had particularly devastating results, employing around 8% of the total workforce. This summer, the tourist complexes of the Italian tour operator Valtour will remain closed in both Tabarca and Bizerte.
While Italian tourists have decided to avoid Tunisia this year, Italian companies have stayed put. Colacem, a cement maker, and Gervasoni, a steel maker, continued to operate as usual; another Italian company, Clerprem, still produces armrests for cars in Bizerte, in northern Tunisia.
Construction is also resuming, especially in Tunis, where many buildings are still awaiting completion. Todini, a construction company, will build two plots of the new highway between the cities of Gabès and Sfax, for a total value of 100 million euros. Ferretti Construction has recently resumed its usual activities, and the Italian Gwh, a biomass producer, and the French Thales, which produces radio navigation systems, have recently opened new offices in Tunisia. However, some companies have complained about a number of customs issues at the border; uncertainty about the next election and the government also makes some payments uncertain.
But no one doubts that the economy can help Tunisia’s transition to democracy. At the Italian-Tunisian forum, Tunisian ministers promised a series of investment incentives for Italian businessmen wishing to open new businesses (such as exemption from all taxes or VAT for companies only exporters during the first ten years of investment). Tunisia also invites small and medium-sized enterprises to invest in mechanics, electronics and agribusiness in a country which is now the central commercial platform to Egypt, Morocco and Jordan.
“It’s positive,” said Michele Tronconi, president of the Italian Textile and Fashion Federation. “Now they must liberalize distribution, real estate, transport and the media, which until now were under the monopoly of Ben Ali’s family.”
Photo –francesco sgroi