Foreign investors urged to join Tunisia democratic 'startup'

Tunis (AFP) - Tunisia on Monday urged foreign investment in its democratic "startup", three years after the country set the ball rolling on the Arab Spring uprisings that swept away long-time dictators.

"To invest in Tunisia, in this startup, is to invest in democracy," Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa told an international investment conference in Tunis.

His visiting French counterpart, Manuel Valls, backed the appeal.

"At a time when chaos threatens Libya, when barbarity is rampant in Iraq and Syria, Tunisia needs all our support to continue on the path of democracy," he told participants.

"Yes, Tunisia's economy is a startup... I invite you to invest in it and to trust it," said Valls, who co-organised the conference.

Tunisia unveiled at the meeting 22 major projects costing 12 billion dinars (more than 5 billion euros, $6.5 billion), including the construction of a deep-water port in Enfidha, south of the capital, and a dam in northwest Tunisia.

Investment projects in the energy, transport, tourism and industry sectors were also unveiled to representatives of around 30 countries, 20 international institutions and dozens of private companies.

Tunisian authorities say the main goal of the conference was to restore investor confidence through the government's "strategic vision" of structural economic reforms.

"We forgot about the economy over the past three years but the economy did not forget us," said Jomaa, referring to instability, political crisis and social unrest since Tunisia's 2011 revolution.

The growth rate for the first half of 2014 fell to 2.1 percent, lower than for the same period last year and not enough to absorb growing unemployment in a cash-strapped country.

Authorities vaunt the "success" of Tunisia's political transition, pointing to the adoption of a constitution and a "national dialogue", following political assassinations and attacks on security forces which rocked the country last year.

At the end of the one-day conference, Sustainable Development Minister Hedi Larbi told reporters that a number of institutions and companies had indicated their interest in some of the projects.

He did not elaborate.

Jacob Kolster, North Africa regional director of the African Development Bank, said investors had been waiting for a "clear vision of Tunisia's economy and this is what we got today".

"What is now important is the execution of this vision," he told AFP.

A government of technocrats has been running Tunisia since January, ahead of legislative and presidential elections set for October and November.