August 30, 2012 5:21 pm

Tunisia plans sale of Ben Ali assets

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Tunisian authorities plan to boost the ailing economy through the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars in assets previously owned by the toppled president Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, his family and allies.

However, some activists and anti-corruption monitors are worried about the lack of transparency in the government’s planned sell-offs of strategic automotive, telecommunications, construction and financial sector holdings.

“There is no planning; no communication about what they’re going to do,” said Karim Ben Abdullah, a Tunisian blogger and activist. “There is absolutely no way to have an overview in terms of what is going on in the government on this issue.”

Officials from the offices of the prime minister, anti-corruption ministry and finance secretary, which announced the asset liquidations several weeks ago, did not answer requests for comment on Thursday.

Tunisia has been struggling to revive its economy, steady its cash reserves and prop up its currency, while launching a jobs programme following last year’s revolution that overthrew Mr Ben Ali. In an attempt to halt inflation, Tunisia’s central bank raised interest rates by 25 basis points on Wednesday to 3.75 per cent.

Hamadi Jebali, the prime minister, announced late on Wednesday that sales of assets, worth up to 1.2bn Tunisian dinars ($750m), previously held by Mr Ben Ali and 113 others figures in his entourage, would be used to plug holes in the 2012 budget and to fund unspecified development projects, especially for poor people and “those with special needs”, the official Tunisian news agency reported.

The cash raised “will be integrated, exceptionally, into the 2012 budget”, the news agency quoted the prime minister’s office as saying.

The six holdings ready to be sold include 25 per cent ownership of the country’s main mobile operator, Tunisiana, as well as a 99 per cent stake in the local Kia Motors concession, a 59 per cent stake in Ennakl, a company that imports Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche vehicles, and a 13 per cent stake in the publicly listed Banque de Tunisie. Other assets include a private school and a 37 per cent stake in a cement company, according to Reuters news agency.

The stakes in Ennakl and Tunisiana, which is mostly owned by the Kuwaiti group Wataniya and controls 54 per cent the nation’s mobile market, will be sold at auction, with bids due in November, the government has announced. Qatar-based Qtel, which owns a quarter of Tunisiana, will be barred from bidding.

Activists and analysts fear that the lack of transparency in the sales process will make it prone to perceptions of corruption that could damage the credibility of the country’s first democratically elected government.

“I think there is absolutely no transparency [with the stock selling] and we, the press, have been begging the government for more information about the whole process,” said Naima Charmiti, a journalist covering the issue for the news website Arabesque TV. “Ask me what we got? Nothing.”

Tunisian officials have seized 550 buildings, 300 companies, 367 bank accounts, 48 boats, 223 cars and 83 horses previously belonging to associates of Mr Ben Ali.

Ridha Saidi, the economy minister, told reporters recently that the private companies would be sold because “the state is not ready to manage competitive sectors”, according to the news site Tunisia Live.

Additional reporting by Amina Ashraf

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