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TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisia's new government gave an inaugural performance this week by hosting a U.S.-sponsored conference on investment and entrepreneurship designed to boost international confidence in the struggling new democracy.
Tunisia impressed the world by managing a political transition to democracy, installing a new government last month, but its economy has struggled since the 2011 revolution and foreign investors have stayed away during the tumultuous post-revolutionary period.
The conference, which featured a videotaped message from President Barack Obama and was headlined by U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, was seen by Tunisian officials as a way of telling the world that Tunisia was back on track.
"This event gives us an opportunity to tell the whole world, through our guests, that Tunisia is peaceful, that they can walk around without fear, it is a good life and there is no risk to invest," said Amel Bouchamaoui of the American Chamber of Commerce in Tunisia, one of the event organizers. "We have to calm investors and make them realize that the state is here, it has returned."
Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid opened the conference with promises for economic reform as well as hopes that the long-delayed free trade agreement between the U.S. and Tunisia could be finally completed.
The American delegates praised Tunisia's achievements but at the same time proposed a list of reforms needed if the country was to reenergize the economy and get the investment it needed — as well as that free trade agreement.
Pritzker said the country needs a new investment code, a reform of the banking sector, and an overhaul to the tax and customs system.
The unemployment rate hovers around 15 percent but three quarters of those unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 30. Economic growth, which has been an anemic 2 percent, is not creating the jobs needed.
In the four years after the revolution, the country was wracked by social unrest, terrorist attacks and governed by a stringer of interim administrations that did not make the necessary reforms.
Sofiane Ben Tounes, the president of General Electric in Northeast Africa, said his company has been in Tunisia for decades but now sees a real opportunity for change with the newly elected government — a coalition of liberal, nationalist and Islamist parties that holds a large majority in parliament.
"We have been waiting for the formation of a permanent five year government to see if the necessary laws are put forward, including the ones for investment that would allow us to enlarge our presence in Tunisia," he said, envisioning public-private partnerships in areas like energy production.
"All the ingredients are now here to succeed," he said.