New Internationalist

Tunisia

Issue 165

new internationalist
issue 165 - November 1986

COUNTRY PROFILE

Tunisia
[image, unknown] TUNISIA loves to remind the world that its history goes back to the founding of Carthage by Queen Dido in 814 BC, and that the only African army ever to defeat a European one was Hannibal Barca's when he crossed the Alps with elephants and fell upon the Roman legions.

Reminders of the past are seen in the Roman coliseum at El Diem, which is even more magnificent than the one in Rome. The old city of Kairouan is Islam's third most holy city after Mecca and Medina. Add to this the more recent French colonial influence, visible in the northern cities with their sidewalk cafés and fashionable shops, and it's easy to understand why Tunisians are such a deeply cultured people.

But there is tension in the country. You can see it in the beggars who ply the post offices and the taxi-ranks, the class of people involved in the bread riots when the government tried to cut its food subsidies in 1984. The conversation of civil servants also gives clues. They tend to regard anything European, anything American, as good, while sneering at their own traditions.

Those who are well-off are oriented to the West in every aspect of their lives, proud that they drink alcohol and that their womenfolk play a full part in social and economic life. They have a word for the inhabitants of the less urbanised, less developed south: maure, connoting a mixture of camels, backwardness and the fatalism associated with Islam.

President Bourguiba, once upon a time the driving force of the independence movement against the French, is now embarrassingly decrepit. His ruling Parti Socialist Destourien (PSD) is so accustomed to dominating the country's politics that very little room is being made for opposition parties as the ailing leader's acolytes prepare for the succession. The only politician to remonstrate against the US bombing raids on Libya in April was summarily sent to prison.

There's bad news in store. Oil exports, the main foreign exchange earner, have been stagnant for three years and show no signs of improving. The proceeds from tourism have also been falling. The EEC continues to block Tunisia's agricultural produce, and the higher debt repayments and lower remittances from overseas workers are deepening the current account deficit.

Relations with neighbouring Libya, jittery at best, reached new levels of hostility when 30,000 Tunisian workers were expelled by Colonel Gaddafi in August 1985.

But the worst portents for Tunisia lie in the widening gap between rich and poor, the increasing need to import food for a population that is growing at a rate of nearly three per cent a year, the rising unemployment among the 60 per cent who are under 25 years of age, and the Muslim establishment which is quietly mobilising and preparing for its day.

Enver Carim

Leader: President Habib Bourguiba

Economy: GNP per capita $US 1,390 (US $14, 110)
Monetary unit: Dinars
Main exports: Petroleum products, textiles, fertilisers, phosphates

People: 7 million

Health: Infant mortality 65 per 1,000 live births (US 11 par 1,000). Percentage of population with access to clean water: 86 (urban), 27 (rural)

Culture: French influence on modern culture, but strong Islamic undertow

Language: Arabic the official language, but French widely used.


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The rich-poor gap is widening

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Food imports; French and US aid

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Women freer in urbanised north

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[image, unknown] One party state buttressed by US and French military assistance

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About 50%

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Clamp-down on religious activists

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Men 60 years; women 63 years; average 61
(US 74 years)

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