In late July, in a move that divided public opinion, Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked Article 80 of the country’s 2014 constitution to suspend parliament, revoke immunity from members of parliament, and dismiss the head of government and some of its members.
President Saied took action amid nationwide protests calling for the resignation of the government and the dissolution of the parliament, largely seen as a refuge for corrupt politicians using parliamentary immunity to evade prosecution. Later that day, many Tunisians took to the streets to celebrate.
Some actors, however, such as the coalition of governing parties, initially rejected Saied’s actions as they considered them a coup and an unconstitutional power grab, but later updated their position, retracting their initial coup charge. Beyond these diverging stances, a wide range of Tunisians, including leading rights organizations, the lawyers’ order and the labor union, remained cautiously optimistic, recognizing the need for a drastic political and economic change without forfeiting the country’s hard-won democratic gains.
To appease all parties, the president organized meetings with several key oversight actors, signaling that the new measures are temporary and that his immediate priority is to meet the Tunisians’ expectations around health, economic and social development. While they disagreed about the president’s method, all parties supported his intentions and quickly voiced their priorities to address the root causes of the widespread grievances: poor governance and deep-rooted and pervasive corruption.
On 9 August, Tunisia’s financial, economic and judicial public prosecution service imposed a travel ban on 12 current and former senior officials whom prosecutors suspected of corruption connected to phosphate extraction and transport. Two days later, authorities arrested the dozen together with an additional two officials on corruption-related charges. Phosphate, used in fertilizers, is the mainstay of Tunisia’s mining sector, but has often been a node of social tension. While President Saied promises to clamp down on corruption in phosphate transport, the country needs a holistic strategy to address mining sector governance.
Improving mining governance requires more than combatting corruption in phosphates
Phosphate featured high on the president’s immediate agenda, given his stated belief that the sector is riddled with corruption and conflicts of interest. A few days after the dissolution of parliament, Saied emphasized the need to return to previous levels of phosphate production. Production has decreased in the Gafsa mining basin in recent years due to sporadic social unrest and sit-ins. With production falling from 8 million tons in 2010 to 3.8 million tons in 2019, the country, which had until then been a leading exporter, was forced to import phosphate. Saied’s vision of reversing the decrease in phosphate production depends on combatting alleged corruption in phosphate transport. While anticorruption efforts are much needed, a more holistic understanding of mining governance issues is crucial to ensure a comprehensive reform vision.
Gafsa and phosphate: poor mining governance at the root of social unrest
Phosphate is a significant source of state revenues, making up about 4 percent of GDP and 15 percent of national exports. But despite this phosphate wealth, citizens in the southwestern Gafsa mining basin have not benefited from the sector. Instead, the Gafsa region has one of the highest poverty rates in Tunisia, due to weak state-led regional development plans. In 2018, Gafsa was ranked 17th among 24 governorates in terms of regional development indicators.
In addition to poor development and lack of employment opportunities, Gafsa’s local community also suffers the negative environmental impacts of phosphate production. For instance, the extraction of phosphate via wet processing is one of the biggest drawn on Tunisia’s water supplies, leading to ongoing shortages. This has in turn harmed the agriculture, a critical sector for food sovereignty and for achieving sustainable development. This summer has been especially challenging for citizens in the mining basin, with temperatures reaching as high as 49 celsius; the ongoing pandemic and continuous water cuts have further exacerbated years of local frustrations.
Inevitably, the Gafsa mining basin remains a hotspot for social unrest. In 2020, Gafsa witnessed the highest number of protests in the country (1,774 out of 8,759 in total). These waves of social unrest date back to 2008 when Gafsa citizens protested the opacity around recruitment processes within the national phosphate company, Compagnie des Phosphates de Gafsa (CPG). As the main employer in the region, the phosphate sector has been unsuccessful in resolving the Gafsa’s unemployment problem, and, at 25.5 percent in 2019, the region still has the second highest percentage of unemployment nationally. The decrease in production caused by social unrest has also negatively impacted the country’s economy and risks aggravating Gafsa’s unemployment issues as CPG revenues continue to plummet.
Short-term solutions have exacerbated the mining basin crisis
Successive post-revolution governments have failed to advance long-term solutions to remedy the “local natural resource curse” in the mining basin. Due to the lack of economic diversification in the region, those in power have looked to CPG to address rising unemployment with a view to placating the local community. As a result, CPG and its affiliates have recruited an additional 21,000 employees since 2011, bringing its workforce to a staggering 30,000. But many of these positions are thought to be “ghost jobs.” Additionally, the government has historically relied on CPG to meet the social and economic needs of the region. Indeed, through corporate social responsibility programs, CPG has played the role of the state in Gafsa, including even security and defence responsibilities. In addition, CPG is responsible for all expenses related to public services in the region, such as health and education. These responsibilities have expanded CPG’s role in Gafsa from a commercial player to a sovereign role.
The high wage bill, increased sovereign responsibilities and decreased production, if unaddressed, will likely lead to the inevitable collapse of CPG, one of the most important industrial pillars of Tunisia’s economy. The national phosphate refinery company Groupe Chimique Tunisien (CGT) will also be heavily impacted as a result.
Tunisia’s political uncertainty lead to radical reform
Saied’s statements about clamping down on corruption in phosphate transport were met with cautious optimism as his ensuing actions signaled a “return to normal.” For instance, after a long interruption, the National Railways Company announced the resumption of public transport of phosphate. This and the travel ban on and arrest warrants against high-ranking officials provide hope to many Tunisians that change is afoot—setting the stage for more accountability and justice.
However, the mining basin’s problems are not limited to corruption and the current crisis is indicative of deeper governance issues. Therefore, the Tunisian government and civil society should question the status quo and look at dismantling it in favor of a more sustainable governance and development model.
Despite the uncertainty and division, the current political turmoil in Tunisia can bring opportunities for bold and radical reforms. The shift in CPG’s mandate from a commercial and economic role to a social and sovereign one requires urgent attention. The company’s unsustainable model threatens its own existence, which in turn risks harming the country’s economy and exacerbating local grievances. It should therefore be reviewed by the government, while ensuring careful attention to the aspirations of the Gafsa communities.
Tunisia’s president should launch a new, inclusive vision for Gafsa. Local community participation and ownership are key ingredients in any strategy to sustainably develop the region.
A government-led holistic vision for sustainable and equitable development in long-marginalized Gafsa should center around three key dimensions. First, the government and legislators must preserve the region’s environmental sustainability, with a view to maintaining biodiversity and agricultural areas while improving air quality and preserving water resources.
Second, the government must establish a clear policy path, informed by input from civil society and local communities, to pursue economic prosperity through diversification of the economy beyond phosphate production and reliance on CPG. This will help create job opportunities outside CPG, therefore improving material living conditions.
Last, the government must address the region’s historical social marginalization, through investment in health and education services.
Social unrest in Tunisia will not subside until inefficiencies and injustices in the mining sector are addressed. President Saied and the country’s current and emerging political actors should take this opportunity to do so in earnest.
Hanen Keskes is a Middle East and North Africa officer at the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI). Wissem Heni is NRGI's Tunisia country manager. Abir Yahyaoui is a Tunisia officer at NRGI.