For indeed, that expression “the friends of Tunisia” is often to be heard from the country’s leaders. Ever since 2011 these “friendly countries”, investors in the country and often enough its creditors, are awaited with bated breath by a government which never tires of repeating the necessity to come to the aid of the region’s “democratic exception” in the throes of an unprecedented economic crisis. However, beneath the veneer of diplomatic language, relations of power and dependency are at work, more or less openly. The external public debt, which rose to 48% of the GDP at the end of 2017, is at the core of these relations. It ties Tunisia to other States, to transnational banks and also of course to bodies like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The latter entities are often suspected of meddling in the affairs of States or even of neocolonialism on account of the conditionalities attached to their low-interest loans.
The history of Tunisia’s external public debt, like that of Egypt and other countries of the region, has been a stormy one, for it is what first opened the door to European colonisation in the second half of the XIXth Century. Anecdotally, the documents establishing the French protectorate over Tunisia – the Bardo Treaty of 1881 and the Marsa Convention of 1883 – both speak on their very first page of the “friendship” between the Tunis regency and the French Republic. Today, when both Tunisians and Egyptians are bearing the full brunt of the austerity programs imposed by those international bodies to which their governments are indebted, the issue of the link between debt and colonialism looms larger every days. Indeed, these organisations never cease to urge the authorities of both countries to “step up the pace of their economic reforms” – the nature of which need hardly be specified – as a necessary condition for the disbursement of the successive instalments of loans which have become absolutely indispensable for the governments involved. But how did this situation come about?
A Runaway Debt
In the Ben Ali years, the public debt represented only 40% of the GDP. The sound management of the Tunisian economy, underlying the much-vaunted “Tunisian economic miracle”, dear to the hearts of the “friends of Tunisia”, was an argument that carried weight when it came to justifying the dictatorship that ruled the country since November 1987. But the uprising of the Winter of 2010 stripped away the illusion masking the “Tunisian miracle”. The disparities between regions, the mass unemployment affecting in particular university graduates, blew up in the faces of all the advocates of the status quo. After Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on 14 January 2011, the street protests continued, demanding the departure of the VIPs of the old regime. “Those who took power after Ben Ali, whether they came from the old regime or the opposition, worked overtime to put a damper on the revolutionary momentum which was bringing crowds into the streets all over the country.” the political analyst Hamza Meddeb explains. “In the neglected regions they began hiring people and budgeting infrastructure projects to buy social peace. The idea was to displace the energy of the streets to the bargaining table”. Lavish subsidies were handed out, civil service jobs, often precarious, were created out of whole cloth – some 155 000 between 2010 and 2014 according the National Statistics Institute – all of which put a great strain on the State budget and the deficit crept up from 1% in 2010 to 3.3% in 2011, then to 5.3% in 2012. Moreover, the 2011 uprising brought tax-collection to a standstill for a while, “during the first few months of 2011, the tax-collectors didn’t return to work and the net tax balance was negative with respect to the year before”, a Finance Ministry official explains. The foreseeable consequence of all this was the increasing resort to bilateral and multilateral loans and of course the issuing of treasury bills.