The government’s failure to retain the competencies and entrepreneurial energy of new generations by not adapting their strategies to the methods that the developed world currently follows has resulted in a growing sense of disillusionment and frustration among young Tunisians, which has been further exacerbated by the outdated legislative framework on which these strategies rely, leading Tunisian youth to flee the country in their droves.
On March 13, 2021, Houssem Bouguerra, was imprisoned for owning a cryptocurrency wallet, a case that many deemed evidence of the government’s failure to come into the 21st century. On that date, police raided the young man’s home and seized digital mining equipment in an incident that invited social media activists to expose what they considered behaviour worthy of “the Stone Age.” Bouguerra’s lawyer, Ridha Ben Jemaa, explained to Middle East Online that the judge decided to drop all charges against Bouguerra “due to the absence of a crime”. However, the prosecutor insisted on appealing on the grounds of “further investigation,” keeping the young man in custody under the charge of money laundering and terrorism.
At the same time, the Prime Minister, Hichem Mechichi, sat on a chair at an international conference on “digital transformation challenges”, on June 21st 2021, with a large sign behind him bearing the slogan “Digital Tunisia”, inherited from his predecessor Youssef Chahed, in a surreal scene that sums up the size of the gap between an official discourse that invests in everything virtual and electronic to attract young people and the reality in which a young man’s fate depends on a law from the last century. This does nothing more than perpetuate what Diaa Al-Din Al-Bajawi, an engineer and a member of the Council of the Engineering Syndicate, as well as the Head of the External Relations Office, termed ‘a brain hemorrhage’.
The twin challenges of an academic brain drain and economic migration have become more prevalent among Tunisian youth over the past years. Based on data provided by The Tunisian Agency for Technical Cooperation (ATCT), Tunisia experiences an annual loss of 6,500 engineers, out of a total of 8,500 new engineering graduates who mostly leave Tunisia to work in EU countries, the Gulf, or Canada. Similarly, the Tunisian National Medical Council (CNOM) has reported that a staggering 80% of young physicians have left the country to seek professional opportunities abroad, in the last few years. The underlying reasons can be traced back to a large gap between the attitudes of people of different generations and an even larger legislative vacuum.
One of the key issues at the heart of this generational conflict in Tunisia is the ancient legislative framework on foreign trade and currency policies, which has not been reviewed since it was first established on January 21st, 1976 before the internet even existed! The law is based on the non-convertibility of the Tunisian dinar and requires that all currency transfers be licensed by the central bank. However, only those whose transfers ensure the inflow of convertible currencies such as the Euro or the Dollar in return for the outflow of the Dinar qualify for such authorization. This means that there is no legal framework for currency transfer that is adapted to everyone’s needs and to modern currency-based requirements, which is not only frustrating for those who work in the tech industry and other sectors where access to foreign products is a requirement, but for every Tunisian virtually exposed to a digitized world and to a digital market yet unable to experience the financial benefits of it.
Digitization has been present in Tunisian political rhetoric for almost a decade now only to remain a pending campaign promise. In June 2017, PayPal refused a request from Tunisia to access its services in the country. The reason for this was that PayPal requires no restrictions over financial operations on its various accounts worldwide. This condition was rejected by the Central Bank of Tunisia, which cited incompatibility with the not-so-current exchange law that prohibits the transfer of currency to foreign bank accounts. Tunisian Authorities, on the other hand, justify their caution towards modern payment and money transfer technologies out of concerns over money laundering and the smuggling of wealth
Economic actors and investors in Tunisia, have been urging financial authorities, including the Central Bank of Tunisia, to overhaul the country’s foreign exchange law to align with the profound changes taking place in the global financial arena, especially in relation to money transfer. In 2022, the governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia, Marwan Al-Abbasi, announced that a new bill on foreign exchange is being drafted and will be ready by next July after a detailed discussion with all the stakeholders. And according to the recent announcements by Central Bank officials, the new exchange law will include an electronic payment method similar to the American payment system “PayPal”. This system provides secure electronic payment methods, taking into account the latest technological developments in e-commerce and enables safe completion of all external payment transactions. This might be the best news this year for Tunisian youth, waiting to be confirmed. Seeing that the intentions of both the members of the new parliament and the Central Bank are aligned, the hopes of Tunisian youth to hop on the digital currents might not be too far away.