Tunisia must do more on investment: business leader

TUNIS Sun Nov 18, 2012 8:14am EST

TUNIS (Reuters) - New foreign investment in Tunisia is resuming after the turmoil of the 2011 revolution but uncertainty over economic regulation and the country's transition to democracy are slowing the recovery, a leading Tunisian businesswoman said.

"There is still ambiguity that hinders economic growth...and efforts to provide more job opportunities," said Wided Bouchamaoui, President of the country's Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

"There is no clear political vision or final road map, and investors at home and abroad are often reluctant to wait for a resolution of these matters," she said in an interview at the Reuters Middle East Investment Summit.

Turmoil surrounding the ouster of Tunisia's authoritarian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 hit the economy hard; strikes and worker sit-ins at factories cut industrial output, while many foreign investors and tourists stayed away.

This year, confidence has begun to return.

New foreign direct investment in the country rose 24 percent from a year earlier in the first ten months of this year to $957 million, not far below its level in the same period of 2010, according to government data.

The government predicts economic growth of 3.5 percent this year and 4.5 percent in 2013, after the economy shrank 2.2 percent last year.

Growth is still too slow, however, to make a major dent in unemployment, which is at an officially estimated 17 percent and was a major source of the discontent which fuelled the revolution.

Bouchamaoui, 51, founder and chief executive of spinning and knitting enterprise Maille Fil, said faster growth would be difficult without more political clarity.

Tunisia's parliament, elected last year, has not yet completed writing a new constitution for the country.

Although the ruling coalition, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda Movement, has agreed to hold presidential and parliamentary elections next June 23 with the president to be chosen directly by voters, parliament has not yet approved that.

Bouchamaoui, who is the first woman to head the Chambers of Commerce and Industry and took her post after the revolution swept away some of Tunisia's traditional business elite, said political uncertainty was hampering the government's response to economic problems.

"There is a lack of boldness in government decisions...Businessmen and investors do not feel they have adequate guarantees in light of the fragile security situation and the growing sit-ins, which could cost the companies huge losses," she said.

The economic environment has deteriorated since hardline Islamists stormed the U.S. embassy in Tunis in September to protest a film made in California that was deemed offensive to Islam, she added. At least four people were killed during the incident.

"The urgent thing is to adjust the political map...Most businessmen at home and abroad want to know the characteristics of the future, because this government is temporary."

REGULATION

Bouchamaoui said that in addition to clarifying the political outlook, it was vital for the government to speed up revision of investment laws to cut bureaucratic red tape, make business more transparent and eliminate corruption.

Finance Minister Slim Besbes said in a separate interview for the Reuters Summit that the government was in the "final stages" of preparing a new investment law that would strengthen protections given to investors and make procedures easier.

Tunisia aims to attract a target of 2.5 billion dinars ($1.6 billion) of foreign investment in 2013, according to Investment and International Cooperation Minister Riadh Bettaieb.

After the revolution, the government issued a decree banning overseas travel by more than 70 businessmen because they were suspected of involvement in corruption cases under the former regime.

Bouchamaoui said the government needed to resolve those suspicions one way or the other as soon as possible, rather than leaving the businessmen in limbo.

"The government should resolve these cases in the courts, so the innocent can take care of their projects and contribute to the growth of the country's economy," she said.

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(Writing by Andrew Torchia)