Economic Ties Can Save Africa’s Arab Spring

Jan. 15 (Bloomberg) — Two years after the fall of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the economic imperative for political stability in North Africa requires some bold and fresh thinking. One idea worthy of more attention is promoting regional economic integration.

Commerce among the Maghreb countries — Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania — has been hovering around 3 percent to 4 percent of all the trade they conduct, making the region probably the least integrated in the world. Overcoming this failure would help to open borders and allow for greater efficiencies, economic diversification and economies of scale, drawing on each country’s relative strengths in human and natural resources.

Tunisia, for example, has a surplus of skilled and manual workers. Libya lacks skilled labor, but has Africa’s largest reserves of oil and a huge project of reconstruction to undergo. Algeria has natural gas and is trying to diversify its economy. Morocco, meanwhile, excels in agriculture.

Integrating these often complementary strengths and weaknesses is a strategic goal that should start with Tunisia and its neighbors, Libya and Algeria, before eventually encompassing all of North Africa. This can’t be achieved quickly, but might prove transformative for a critical region in transition.


Any success would have to begin with Tunisia’s development of a stable and open economy. The coalition government led by the Islamist Ennahda party hasn’t yet demonstrated that it is up to the task of managing the transition, generating economic growth, tackling regional disparities and fighting corruption.

If Tunisia is to consolidate its democracy, then Ennahda’s leaders will have to be seen to abide by basic ground rules: reject violence; uphold the rule of law; respect the freedoms of speech, religion, association and assembly; and protect the rights of women and minorities. The largely secular opposition, meanwhile, will have to keep an open dialogue with the government in order to avoid a polarization of society that would probably lead to bloody confrontation.

Despite significant challenges, we believe Tunisia’s evolution toward democracy will continue, provided that the economy doesn’t collapse. The immediate priorities are to tackle high youth unemployment — which the International Monetary Fund estimates at 30 percent — and address decades of neglect that caused large disparities between Tunisia’s developed coast and economically depressed interior. Additional measures include accelerating market reforms, institution building, and improving labor markets, which are marked by significant rigidities and skill mismatches.

All of this is achievable. The situation is ripe for fresh, bold thinking, and the old big idea of Maghreb economic integration can help. Robust regional trade would enable North African states to deliver concrete dividends to citizens and consolidate popular support for new institutions.

Unfortunately, none of the region’s governments has yet embraced the idea, which should come as no surprise. In the 1990s, the U.S. promoted regional economic integration across the Maghreb, as a way to attract investment and expand trade. The idea faltered due to lack of interest from Morocco and Algeria, in particular, where a continued territorial dispute over the Western Sahara blocked cooperation.


To avoid repeating that failure, integration efforts should start where they have the best chance to succeed, in Tunisia and Libya, two countries whose leaders need new ideas and aren’t entrenched in the past. Private businesses are ready to take the initiative and can draw on lessons learned by similar platforms elsewhere.

The Business Advisory Council for Southeastern Europe, to name one example, has useful experience from its efforts to stimulate trade between rivals Greece and Turkey and to help reintegrate the economies of former Yugoslavia and its neighbors, after that country broke apart in the brutal wars of the 1990s. The council’s members consist of 35 investors and chief executives from in and around the target region.

It won’t be easy. The main border crossing between Tunisia and Libya has been closed in recent weeks due to protests, often violent, in a town on the Tunisian side, over lack of economic development. Still, if rivals in the Balkans could remove the political barriers that were blocking trade and investment, why shouldn’t North Africa be able to do the same?

The main task will be to engage business leaders, civil-society members and policy makers, and to educate them about what economic integration can deliver. Specific cross-border efforts should then follow in order to broaden support for economic integration beyond Tunisia, and to build up regional relationships. Broad campaigns will also be needed to bring people from all over the region together for further dialogue and relationship building. This will take years of persistent work.

The think tank Le Club de Tunis, for example, has started an initiative aimed at getting the regions on either side of the Tunisian-Algerian border to begin doing business and making contacts with each other. Meanwhile, the German Marshall Fund of the United States started a project in December to bring together nonprofit organizations from countries across the Middle East and North Africa.

As a matter of priority, private-sector business leaders need the governments to harmonize labor laws and investment codes across the region — starting with Libya and Tunisia — two steps that would allow the benefits of economic integration to begin to flow. Also important is to strengthen each country’s banking sector, to ease the requirement for cash guarantees to provide credit to traders, and to harmonize payment procedures. All of this is doable, given the political will. It’s up to the private sector to show governments the way.

More than half a century ago, the U.S. helped Europe to overcome the devastation and divisions of war, by promoting economic integration between former enemies. For North Africa, a public commitment to economic integration as a strategic goal would create a new dynamic for smart economic policy making, and over time, it would make an important contribution to regional peace and security.

(Ghazi Ben Ahmed is a co-founder of Le Club de Tunis and heads the German Marshall Fund’s office in the Middle East and North Africa. Ellen Laipson is president and chief executive officer of the Stimson Center in Washington. The opinions expressed are their own.)


Mediterranean Development Initiative (MDI) Conference on Women’s empowerment in Tunisia, Building Momentum


The Mediterranean Development Initiative (MDI) is a Tunisian not-for-profit
organization, born after the Revolution, headquartered in Tunisia and partnering with
the Center for Transatlantic Relations of the Johns Hopkins University SAIS in
Washington DC. MDI aims at increasing prosperity and opportunities for the people
of the Mediterranean region by contributing to its economic and social development
through innovative and sustainable projects, and through synergies and strategic
cooperation with other think tanks in the Region and beyond.
As part of its activities to support women and women leadership, the MDI is
organizing jointly with the Presidential think tank ITES (Institut Tunisien pour les
Etudes Stratégiques) and ODI, the London-based Overseas Development Institute, a
conference on Women Empowerment in Tunisia. The event will take place on
October 1st & 2nd and will discuss the recent Report elaborated by ODI and funded by
the Bill Gates Foundation: “Building Momentum, Women’s Empowerment in
Tunisia”, the progress achieved, the factors driving change, the challenges but also the
lessons that can be learnt from others experiences.
The objective of the conference is to use the recent ODI report as an entry point to
generate discussion around whether the mechanisms which explain women’s
empowerment to date in Tunisia (as outlined in the report) can be
exploited/used/drawn upon to reflect on how further progress can be made towards
women’s empowerment in general, but also in business and entrepreneurship. There
will be a focus on identifying where there are specific barriers to further progress in
women’s entrepreneurship in Tunisia and an open discussion around how and if the
mechanisms identified can be used to address them.
The conference will bring speakers from political, social and economic horizons in
both the private and public spheres, at different levels (national, subnational) to reflect
the multi-dimensional concept of Women’s empowerment.
The conference will try to answer what is holding women back from leadership
positions in 21st-century, bringing compelling models for what female power should
look like. The women situation should considerably improve globally as more women
manage to break into leadership roles.
For many decades Tunisia has been considered as a pioneer country in the Arab and
Muslim world in terms of women’s rights. Since independence in 1956, the country’s
constitution, legislation and policies have evolved in ways that promote the principles
of gender equality and eliminate gender-based discrimination in relation to health,
education, labor conditions and political representation. The country’s Code of
Personal Status, introduced in 1956, made far-reaching reforms to family law –
granting women equal rights in marriage and divorce, abolishing polygamy and the
practice of immediate divorce by men, and giving children born to Tunisian mothers
and foreign fathers the right to Tunisian citizenship. Women obtained the right to vote
in 1957 and have had the right to seek an abortion without the need for their
husband’s permission since 1973. Tunisia has also been advanced in signing up to
international commitments, including ratification of the Optional Protocol to the
United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against
Women (CEDAW) in late 2008.
Since the events of the Arab Spring in 2010 its political system has changed
significantly and while the introduction of political liberalism has improved political
freedoms more broadly it has also been accompanied by the emergence of more
conservative views about women.
The conference aims at highlighting potential areas of interest to policy makers and
the private sector for the future and any knowledge gaps which could be filled by
future research. The proceedings will be published in the form of a short briefing.
The MDI in cooperation with ITES, ODI and the Ministry of Women and Family
Affairs will also draw a list of recommendations in order to devise concrete programs
that will answer the needs identified during the conference. This conference aims
more than just Tunisian women and has the ambition to seek similar initiatives in the
Arab region and link them in a dynamic action-oriented network.



08:30 – 09:00 Registration

09:00 – 11:15

Plenary Session 1: Welcome and Opening Remarks
– Ghazi Ben Ahmed, MDI Managing Director

– Samira Merai, Tunisian minister for Women and Family affairs
– Hardy Ostry, Director KAS
– Mohamed Ennaceur, President of the Parliament (not confirmed)
Keynote speech
– Heli Järvinen – Member of the Finnish Parliament
– HE Mrs Nagma Mohamed Mallick, Ambassador of India
– H.R.H. Princess Basmah Bint Saud Bin Abdul Aziz Al Souad (not confirmed)

11:15 – 12:45 Plenary Session 2: ODI Report Presentation and discussion

– Vikky Chambers – ODI

– Professor Emna Ben Arab (discussant)

– Professor Riadh Zghal (discussant)

Moderator:– Mariem Belkadhi (to be confirmed)

12:45 – 14:00 Lunch debate

Facts and Figures by Hassen Zargouni – Sigma Conseil

14:00 – 15:30 Plenary Session 3: Women Leadership in business, challenges and lessons learnt

– Leila Belkhiria – Chef d’entreprise

– Neila Benzina – CEO Technological firm

– Wafa Laamiri – CJD

– Boutheina Ben Yaghlane Ben Slimane, Secrétaire d’Etat aux Finances (NC)
Moderator: Aymen Talbi

15:30 – 17:00 Plenary Session 4: Women Empowerment, the way forward

– Amira Yahyaoui – Civil Society

– Wafa Makhlouf – Member of the National Parliament

– Nigel Bellingham – Director of the British Council Tunisia

– Habib Kasdaghli – Doyen de la faculté des lettres Mannouba

Moderator: Hedi Mechri

17:00 – 17:30 Closing Session

– Samira Merai, Tunisian minister for women affairs and Family

– Ghazi Ben Ahmed – Managing Director of MDI

– Hardy Ostry, Director KAS.