Tunisia’s Tipping Point
Last Friday, as I was meeting in my office in Washington, DC with Nazeh Ben Ammar, president of the Tunisian American Chamber of Commerce, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, now the former president of Tunisia, was fleeing his country. As my guest awaited word on when the airport would re-open and Lufthansa would be permitted to return him home to his family in Tunis, we talked about his country, entrepreneurship and a new generation of youth in the Arab region.
Of particular note, was his observation that perhaps the WikiLeaks scandal might be having some unintended consequences. As relayed to me, revelations in U.S. embassy cables gave credibility to accusations of corruption at the highest level of government and resonated strongly with young Tunisians. Such open media attention raised the public’s temperature and provided cover for the genuine public dissent that began last month. Now it appears the Arab region must respond to an increasingly open source world where new, fearless generations will rebel – not as extremists, but as educated, yet unemployed citizens. If accounts from the dissenting young Tunisians on news channels are any indication, the uprising is at its core not so much a call for personal and political freedom, but one for economic freedom and opportunity.
The question is then whether the expression of 'people power' in Tunisia will yield more democratic governments. In the midst of the chaos, a positive sign was obvious. The events were a result, not just of desperation, but of initiative and a belief that they should be allowed to have a say because they can contribute to their country’s economic future. It was a shout initiated by the unemployed, and joined later by workers, small business owners and the coastal professional class. It was a revolt against the corruption associated with Mr. Ben Ali’s 23-year rule but, one conducted in a country with a prime minister who had shown an alternative in terms of economic prosperity.
For democracy to really take root in Tunisia, where an estimated 55% of the population is under the age of 25, job creation will be crucial. Luckily, the qualities shown by Tunisians could very well be the key ingredient for this much needed job creation. The unemployment has hovered around 14% in recent years. Sadly, as the level of education among job seekers in Tunisia has improved, the nation has failed to implement job creation policies to absorb the available human capital. As a result, the unemployment rate is estimated to be much higher among university graduates, as high as 30%. Securing start-up funds is one of the most pressing obstacles for aspiring entrepreneurs in Tunisia's universities. Private lending institutions require a prohibitive 20% deposit. The news on January 11th that a 26-year-old Tunisian with a university degree set himself on fire when police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling demonstrates the feeling of unfairness and frustration at this reality. Not surprisingly, this desperate act “touched a nerve with educated, unemployed youth nationwide,” as NPR reported that day.
As I remarked in my blog following a visit to the region last month, entrepreneurial behavior has a large role to play in turning a new generation of educated but unemployed people into nascent entrepreneurs (and job creators) and leaders of their countries. The events of last week offer an opportunity to give more Tunisians a real chance to unleash their creative potential through new innovative startups.
Many Tunisians eagerly participated in the Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference, a follow-on to U.S. President Barack Obama’s Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship. At the conference, I heard from 22 Tunisian entrepreneurs, most of whom prefaced any optimism with requirements of first making the country free from the corruption in business deals that has been closing doors for many aspiring startups and entrepreneurs not blessed with the hand of nepotism or favoritism. For many entrepreneurs who decided to launch their ideas nonetheless, the added costs and uncertainty imposed by that corruption has meant failure or, at best, stifled growth. Many of these are talented entrepreneurs who have succeeded in other countries where they were allowed to compete more fairly. In the context of a reality where local economic gains are distributed only among a few, recent events should not come as a surprise.
So what message does last week’s economic revolution send to the region? Clearly, Tunisia has issued a call to Arab leaders to not stifle the innovative aspirations of their people--especially the younger generation--which they have armed through education and who are now impatient to put their education to good use. I am sure that, if offered a support system by the interim government led by former Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, Tunisians will happily exchange a chaotic uprising for a transformative entrepreneurial revolution. If taken seriously, this will lend credibility to other leaders scrambling for it.
The events in Tunis last week may very well go down in history as the tipping point for the region. We are unlikely to see many big changes in government rule in these cultures. However, faced with an opportunity to tackle high youth unemployment and channel youth dissent, fueling an organic entrepreneurial renaissance at the grassroots level is starting to look like a very smart strategy for today’s leaders in the Arab world. Let’s hope they make allies for growth and expanded freedom from their ranks of unemployed and struggling business owners--turning to entrepreneurial capitalism to lead the way.
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Jonathan Ortmans is president of the Public Forum Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogue on important policy issues. In this capacity, he leads the Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship, focused on public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, he serves as a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation.