MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Our colleague Robert Siegel is in Tunisia this week reporting on that country's transition to democracy. In January, several weeks of protest forced the longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee.
There's now a transitional government in Tunis. And it faces the predictable challenges: how to agree on a constitution, how to organize an election. And, as Robert reports today, there's another complication: the state of Tunisia's economy.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Here's a hypothetical question: Where would you rather spend a vacation: in a country that's working its way through a largely peaceful revolution with an occasional protest that turns violent, or in a safe police state?
Well, in the warrens of the Medina, the Old City of Tunis, the merchants in their covered stalls packed with every sort of merchandise know the answer, and they're not happy about it.
Said Ayare(ph) sells handicrafts, traditional pointed leather shoes for example. His market is the tourist trade.
SAID AYARE: Before, many tourists come and walk the Medina. Here you buy many article by handcrafts, do you understand? But today, no have the tourists.
SIEGEL: So the people who live by making handicrafts that the tourtists come to buy aren't making any money now.
AYARE: All today in Tunis, the tourism is catastrophic in Tunis today.
SIEGEL: Mahmoud Ben Romdhane is an economist and a senior member of one of the bigger Tunisian political parties, the Ettajdid, or Renewal Movement.
MAHMOUD BEN ROMDHANE: Our touristical system is in deep crisis. It's thanks to this sector that I would 400,000 to 500,000 people live.
SIEGEL: In this country of 10 and a half million, tourism represents over five percent of the economy. Here's one measure of how bad it is: Tunis is home to the ruins of ancient Carthage.
TARAK EL GHOZZI: (Tour Guide) Well, we're here in front of the main public bath in Carthage, the main bath built, or the biggest bath built outside of Rome.
SIEGEL: Tour guide Tarak el Ghozzi leads 10 American tourists through a breathtakingly beautiful spot along the Bay of Tunis. An idyllic green hillside dotted with palm trees slopes toward the remains of the second century Antonine Baths.
Beyond the ruin, the perfectly bright blue Mediterranean blends into a paler blue sky at the horizon. In short, we are in tourist heaven, and it is empty, except for these few Americans, like 84-year-old Mary Bohls, a retired CPA from Austin, Texas. People are evidently afraid of instability and the war next door in Libya. Was she?
MARY BOHLS: No, We all wanted to come. We were made fun of, of it, for coming, but...
SIEGEL: Who made fun of you?
BOHLS: Friends, family. What are you doing going to Tunisia? So here we are.
SIEGEL: Mr. El Ghozzi, the guide, told me what the scene is like here in a typical season.
EL GHOZZI: This time of the year, there would be all the cruise ships. There would be thousands of people here. There would be hundreds of buses. And I would have only three minutes here to talk to the people and have to move aside for other groups to take their place. I mean, it's big damage.
SIEGEL: Really, the tourist trade has been hit terribly here.
EL GHOZZI: It was hit. It was definitely hit terribly, and of the two millions Tunisians living from tourism who now are on (unintelligible) out of jobs, they don't have an income. They have to rely on their families' support.
SIEGEL: This is what you hear from business owners who depend on the tourist trade here: Business is down.
At a posh restaurant in the Casbah, the old downtown near the Prime Minister's office, business is down more than half compared to last year. And that is just the beginning of the economic impact of the regional revolutionary wave on Tunisia's economy.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).
SIEGEL: This is the Tahrir Cafe in a working class neighborhood of Ariana, a Tunis suburb. At midday, a couple of dozen men play cards on the battered metal tabletops. The news from al-Jazeera is on the TV hanging on the wall over a two-man game of chkobba, which is something like the card game War.
On the television, among scenes of protest from Egypt, Yemen and Iraq, there are reports on the real war in neighboring Libya. Its effects in Tunisia are palpable.
Economist Mahmoud Ben Romdhane says that if Tunisia has lost five percentage points in economic growth this year, three to four points of that loss is due to Libya for three reasons.
BEN ROMDHANE: First, we had every year 1.5 million Libyans coming here and visiting Tunisia. Two, we have tens of thousands of Tunisians working there. They have now come back to Tunisia, and we have to give them money. Three, we had trade with Libya. This trade is disappearing.
This is, I would say - I was going to tell you is independent from the Tunisian Revolution, but it is not true because...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIEGEL: You inspired the Libyans to do this.
BEN ROMDHANE: Because you are right. We inspired them.
SIEGEL: Ideally, the Libyan war will end someday, Tunisia's political elites will hammer out their constitutional compromises, and the tourists and the Libya trade will return. But that will still leave Tunisia with some huge economic problems, the kind that led a desperate fruit vendor to set himself on fire and ignite the revolution that inspired the region.
There is high unemployment and underemployment among young people. Can a democratic government do any better at creating jobs for a population that is very young and increasingly well-educated? The interior is far less developed than the coast.
Nejib Chebbi says he has a program. Chebbi is the founder of the PDP, the Progressive Democratic Party. He could be Tunisia's next president. In July, the country is electing a constitutional assembly first. He says that ending the rampant corruption of the Ben Ali regime will spur economic growth.
NEJIB CHEBBI: With democracy and good governance, first we will have more growth because nepotism and the abuse of power and so on hampered the growth. We estimate that at least two points the lack of growth with despotism.
SIEGEL: Mr. Chebbi is a lean, balding lawyer whose elegance at age 67 belies his youth as a student protestor. For that, he spent two years in jail in the late 1960s. Down the road, he sees an upside to the very regional upheaval that is currently hurting Tunisia's economy.
CHEBBI: With the new conditions in Tunisia and in the whole region, if the revolutions succeed in Libya and in Egypt, we will have huge market who will help foreign investment in that region, and that will be a factor of growth. We are optimistic about our ability to succeed in growth more than before.
SIEGEL: That is a long-term vision. For the considerable tourist sector in this country, there would be a short-term solution, too, if only the Europeans, and the Americans would come back.
In Tunis, this is Robert Siegel.
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