Reimagining Tunisia: Recipes for a brighter 21st century
A decade after the Arab spring, Tunisia is seen to be failing on many metrics, but former government adviser Zakaria Belkhoja remains optimistic. The key to moving forward is to find a way to engage both the youth and the elites in the political process, he tells Omar Ben Yedder.
Zak Belkhoja is an old friend. Like many Tunisian acquaintances, by his own admission, he followed what is considered a typical career path for someone of his generation. He studied at the Ecole Polytechnique, one of the most prestigious universities in France, before going into investment banking in Paris.
But he was never comfortable in the corporate world. So when the revolution in Tunisia happened back in 2011 – an event no Tunisian would have expected – it aroused an urge to go back home and do something.
Glass half full?
Eleven years on and the situation in Tunisia is somewhat complicated. The scorecard for many is that in purely metrical terms the revolution has failed. Economically speaking, the country has suffered and regressed. Its debt-to-GDP ratio has reached levels that many economists consider unsustainable. The informal sector has grown to worrying proportions. The public sector is bloated. There is a lack of political stability – some 10 governments over the last 11 years – and a dearth of leadership and clear vision at the top.
Belkhoja paints a more positive scenario. He has always been upbeat about the gains made following the Arab Spring – notably in the creative industries, in the startup space and also in terms of freedom of expression – and is quick to say that those who criticise should be playing a more active role in providing solutions.
Has the elite failed the aspirations of the revolution, I ask him? Absolutely, but he also puts himself in that category. He feels that both the youth and the elites, those that are running big business and the more privileged, have been too disengaged from the political process. As a result, he says, the revolution, which was predominantly a youth and a grassroots movement, has been hijacked by a political class that belongs to the last century.
“We haven’t seen new political players, a new ideology. The youth were expecting a lot of progress and a change to their lives. But today many only dream of going to another country.”
Belkhoja has had two stints in public service. The first was in 2012 when he returned to the country and worked on the new investment code for the then Minister of Investment. More recently, it was to advise the Prime Minister around issues of innovation, transformation and youth.
“I was never in politics with a small p,” he tells me. “I’ve never adhered to a party. But I was always drawn to politics with a big P. However, what I wanted to do is not sit on the sidelines and commentate. I wanted to contribute ideas and help us move from a 20th century politics to one that is fit for the digital era and for a youth that is connected to the rest of the world. One of my favourite slogans from the Arab Spring was ‘No More Fear’. It calls for boldness and also greater trust. I wanted to bring to the public sector what I had seen in the startup scene: Think big, start small and scale fast.”
Having seen the workings of government, he is actually complimentary of the country’s public institutions and thinks they are not given the credit they deserve. Yes, some of the criticism levelled at them is justified, but if you empower the civil servants and make them part of your project you get results. About that, he is categoric.
“Unless you involve them in the process, change will not happen. But this will require those leading those institutions and the governments that are setting policy to be inclusive in their work. If they are engaged, change will happen very easily.” Too often, he alludes, the administration, and those working within it, have been discredited, or at best, ignored.
It is this lack of teamwork that is holding the country back, he feels. “Individualism has trumped collective success and collective responsibility.”
Tunisia ‘still finding its feet’
When it comes to Tunisia, he acknowledges that, politically speaking, the country is still finding its feet, but it has had to manoeuvre a tough environment, both locally and internationally. He says that the country suffered greatly from the unrest in Libya following the fall of Ghaddafi.
“A third of sales of Tunisian SMEs came from the Libyan market, with nearly 300,000 Tunisians working in Libya at the time. That had a huge impact on the economy,” he reminds me. “Then, we had the terrorist attacks of 2015, which hit the tourism sector, and more recently Covid.”
But didn’t the independence movement, which had a country to build, not face challenges and have less resources at their disposal? He argues that the 2011 uprisings took the whole country by surprise. As a result, no one was prepared, unlike the leadership in 1956 who had been drawing up plans for many years. They had built a tight bond during the journey towards independence, knew each other intimately, trusted each other and worked to each other’s strengths.
The country in 2011, he adds, had little political experience and more time was spent on political manouevring than on working collectively for the nation.
Yet Belkhoja remains optimistic. He points out that Tunisia saw its first unicorn this year when InstaDeep, an AI start-up, raised $100m in a Series B funding round from the likes of BioNTech (the makers of the RNA Covid-19 vaccine) and Google. He feels that the tech sector is also in a good place.
When I tell him that the country is losing many software developers and some of its best brains, he puts another spin on it. “You can say that this is a testament that the education system does produce globally competitive talent. We need to work on how we build a system that helps more and more people get trained and educated so that we collectively create a knowledge-based economy.”
During his time as chief investment officer at the family office in Tunisia, he saw numerous good businesses, he says. And having suffered from the impact of the pandemic and more recently the crisis in Ukraine, he feels that Tunisia is a great option for economies in Europe looking at shortening their supply chains and working with friendly countries.
“A new partnership between Europe and Africa should be high on the agenda and North Africa is a natural partner. When you compare how much the Americans invest into Central and Latin America and you compare that to what the Europeans invest into Africa, you realise there is a wide gap. I really feel there is a reset here in terms of how Europe and Africa work together, and North Africa is ideally positioned here.”
Education, values and work are key
In government, Belkhoja was part of the team that accompanied the Prime Minister and his finance team to Washington to negotiate with the IMF and meet the US administration. When I ask him whether that was one of his more memorable moments in government, he tells me that in fact there were two events that he remembers most vividly. One was a visit to the border on the fifth anniversary of an attack by Daesh that killed a number of civilians, including children.
The other was meeting a single mother who had managed to raise her family after the death of her husband in a lift accident. All seven of their children had succeeded at school and were studying to become doctors and dentists, in part thanks to the strong education and healthcare system that has been built post-independence.
“It showed me that the way out of any crisis is about education, about values, about work. These are the values that we need to instil and the discussions we need to be having. That lady showed me why it was all worth fighting for. We have a collective duty to serve her and her children. I may disagree with you politically but collectively we must build a better future for our country. That day will stay for me the rest of my life.”