Read Time: 7 Minutes
Interview with Wided Bouchamaoui

‘We Had the Choice’

Downtown Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.
Downtown Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. The OECD has called the high rate of youth unemployment in the country a social tragedy. Photograph: Marisa Reichert

Her family’s economic empire profited from Ben Ali’s policies. Then the Arab Spring came and Wided Bouchamaoui wanted to be on the right side of history. A discussion about whether and how Tunisia’s down-for-the-count economy can be saved. 

zenith: Madam Bouchamaoui, how do you interpret being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015: as praise for past deeds or as an incentive to tackle today’s challenges?

Wided Bouchamaoui: The prize was awarded to the Tunisian quartet because we value dialogue. Ultimately, that is the only way that people will feel committed to something; that was the message to the international community. I understand the award as an endorsement of our vision of an Arabic start-up democracy. The prize was given in 2015, but our work continues, aiming to finally achieve what so many young Tunisians demonstrated for in 2011.


“[Youth] can forget about [working in] the public sector”

In its award speech, the Nobel committee noted that Tunisia is facing “significant political, economic and security challenges”. What do these challenges look like to you?

Today, Tunisia is a democracy with a free press and free speech, but the economic and social challenges remain enormous. People are craving work, because you can’t live a dignified life without it. We are well aware of this challenge, even in the Tunisian business community. But we shouldn’t forget the fact that the chaotic situation in Libya doesn’t make this task any easier.


Wided Bouchamaoui is leader of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA).
Wided Bouchamaoui is leader of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA). Photograph: Supplied

Have the economic problems been adequately tackled in the five years since the beginning of the Jasmine Revolution?

Tunisia is on the right track, but we still need to be more persistent in solving our problems. What has been done so far is not enough, especially regarding rural Tunisia, where many people are still waiting for development and investment. We need to step it up a notch if we are to live up to that hope.


In a study from 2015, the OECD estimates youth unemployment in Tunisia to be at 40 per cent, and speaks of a “social tragedy”. How do you plan to give hope to these young people?

The OECD is right, it is a tragedy. In this regard we Tunisians have always relied on our governments, and since independence from France we’ve invested in education and healthcare. Today we can proudly say that we have a lot of skilled women and that Tunisians generally are well-educated. But we need new ways of thinking, we need to adapt the education system to the demands of the market. They can forget about the public sector; today, young people need to learn how to set up businesses and to become self-reliant. We need to encourage them to be more creative and help them to take advantage of financial opportunities.


So today’s unemployed have been taught things that are no longer in demand in the marketplace?

Our education system is in need of a serious audit. All the new business sectors, from IT to environmental technologies, need to become part of the curriculum. Then our young people will learn something that they can actually use later on. Today, there are 250,000 unemployed university graduates. Why? Firstly because the Tunisian market isn’t especially big, but also because these people have studied the wrong things. If this is to change, businesses in the country need to open up to the universities and develop a common programme with them.


When speaking with young Tunisian business founders, I have heard again and again that it is extremely tough to get financing for a good idea. As leader of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, you must be particularly shocked by such complaints.

Yes, I’m aware of the problem. Finance for new businesses is often problematic. Both the state and the banks need to develop more trust.


Many people are unemployed and desperate, especially in rural Tunisia, for example in Kasserine Governorate. You too feel betrayed by your country’s elites. How do you respond to these people?

They are right. But we also need to understand what has happened in the last five years. After the revolution, the country was devastated, we had our hands full setting up democratic institutions, a parliament and a constitution. Many Tunisians completely focused their energies on that and forgot about the needs of young people. It isn’t too late, but  a country has to be constructed step by step. We had the choice, and I think we made the right decision. Now we have to focus on the younger generation, listen to them and integrate them. But they also needn’t wait for us, they need to become active themselves.


“These people need to understand that smuggling destroys our economy”

In a certain sense, they already are. The black market is flourishing in the regions bordering Algeria and Libya, where whole families are living off smuggling. That is their response to the disastrous situation in the labour market.

Smugglers are harming the Tunisian economy; we need to find a solution. But the situation in Libya is so chaotic and it is taking a huge effort just to keep the borders closed. I understand that young people have to keep their heads above water somehow, but this easy way out is not the right one.


The business the smugglers do surely isn’t easy. There are increasing numbers of fatalities from traffic accidents, during police chases or when fuel barrels ignite. 

Smuggling is and remains illegal, and people must accept that. Besides, such behaviour destroys efforts at honest trade and we shouldn’t give anyone hope that this is a way to create jobs. On the contrary, we should show how these things can be imported legally, so that then they needn’t have any worries about the police. I understand that these people believe they have a right to work, and I agree. But goods must be declared, people have to fulfil their civic duty and pay taxes. These people need to understand that smuggling destroys our economy.


OECD data shows that 74 per cent of all companies are located in coastal regions, a figure that has only increased in recent years. How can businesses be more evenly distributed?

The majority of companies are located on the coast; that is a fact, and one of the reasons why there was a revolution in the first place. People in rural areas can see that as far as infrastructure and businesses are concerned, they are simply being left behind. The government needs to support us in our efforts to open these areas up if we are to ever invest there. Nothing will change so long as there are no streets or internet connections. That’s what the government should be dealing with now.


You probably have a pretty good idea of the ways in which the government is failing, given that you are in contact with them.

At the moment, other projects are taking priority. But the government needs to act more aggressively here, so that people can see that something is happening. We entrepreneurs do want to invest, but it won’t happen without the help of the state. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is.


The international community has long recommended that Tunisia decentralise political processes. That could be a way for rural areas to articulate their needs more effectively.

I agree. We have good officials in the countryside, good decisions could be made there. Delegating responsibilities is important and it is also in our constitution. But at the same time we need to make sure that in doing so we don’t divide the country.


Isn’t it already divided? Many people in Kasserine told us that they were doing better before the revolution and that they no longer see their future in Tunisia, but in Europe.

Young people are impatient and they have waited a long time already. I understand what they mean. But a country doesn’t rebuild itself on its own. We are a small country with few resources and a critical situation on our border with Libya. The international community still hasn’t done enough to support us. In 2011 alone, 1.5 million Libyans entered Tunisia. We welcomed them without complaint and yet we received hardly any support. Ultimately, a solution to the conflict in Libya has to be found, otherwise the young democracies in the region wont survive very long. Then Tunisia will fail as well.


What exactly should the EU, do in your view?

It should encourage its citizens to take their holidays in Tunisia and get businesses to invest in our country. We might be only 11.5 million people, but we are in a strategically important position, close to Europe. People here speak multiple languages, many are well-trained and there is a strong private sector. Terrorism is new for us too, we aren’t used to it. Yes, many Tunisians are Arabic Muslims, but we are peaceful, we value education, dialogue and have a 3,000-year history. But we can’t do it alone. We need help, and at the moment that means economic help above all.


Wided Bouchamaoui, born 1961, is leader of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), and since 1994 the manager of Maille Fil, a textile business. Together with the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, UTICA formed part of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. Although Bouchamaoui only took up the post after the 2011 revolution, her critics see her as a representative and continuation of the ancien régime: the Bouchamaoui family has headed up the nation’s largest oil company for 60 years.

This interview was first published in the 2016/4 edition of zenith magazine. Translated by Marty Hiatt.
Florian Guckelsberger