Country Profile


Country profile

Where is Tunisia? Driving into the centre of Tunis from the airport along the Avenue de la République, the country’s popular image as an oasis standing out in the desert rings true. On one side, Lake Tunis shimmers blue and vast, its resident flamingoes silhouetted by the blazing sun; on the other, the parks and tree-lined streets are a striking green contrast to the prevailing yellow-brown ambience of this small North African country, bounded to the north by the Mediterranean and to the south and west by the Sahara Desert.

The image survives closer scrutiny. Tourists are generally well received, the streets have a cleanliness and orderliness rare in the Third World and the countryside is largely unspoilt despite massive investment in tourism, the country’s highest source of foreign currency after textile exports. Its cities successfully blend spectacular Islamic architecture and traditional markets with modern European-style construction.

Even beneath the surface, Tunisia has plenty to recommend it. It stands out from both its North African neighbours and the wider Arab world. It boasts high rates of life expectancy, literacy and home ownership, and lower rates of infant mortality and population growth. It has made progress unparalleled in the Arab world in the development of women’s rights. Its per-capita GNP, at over $5,000, is up to poorer European standards, and only around five per cent of the population live below the poverty line. Entrepreneurs sing the praises of efficient state-run enterprises and the existence of a strong manufacturing base, bankers hail the success of the IMF’s ‘stabilization’ policies. The extension of public services into the rural areas has kept down internal migration to the cities. The president, government and local authorities must face the electorate in regular polls.

But all is not well. Tunisia was led to independence from France in 1956 by Habib Bourguiba. President Bourguiba ruled, along with his Destourian (Constitutional) Socialist Party until, ageing and ailing, he was deposed by his old security boss, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in November 1987. In over 30 years in power Bourguiba had gone from tolerating a degree of opposition, mostly from the trade union-based Left, to driving almost all organized opposition activity under ground. By the late 1980s, the Left was joined by a growing Islamist movement in voicing the rising popular discontent which led to the President’s overthrow.

But under new President Ben Ali, the human-rights situation in the country is certainly no better. The main Islamist party was banned in 1991 and its leadership arrested or driven into exile, as had happened to the Left under Bourguiba. Since then Ben Ali has if anything tightened the stranglehold. The press has been tamed. Hundreds of leftist and Islamist activists remain behind bars. Periodic round-ups send student and trade-union leaders and other political activists and human-rights workers into incommunicado detention. Torture by the security forces is believed to be widespread. Meanwhile, the ruling party, purged of many Bourguiba loyalists and rechristened by Ben Ali the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), has infiltrated many non-governmental organizations, unions, human-rights and women’s groups and effectively neutralized them. In elections, the opposition has no chance. In 1994, the President was re-elected with over 99 per cent of the vote. And in municipal elections two years ago, the RCD won 99.86 per cent of the vote, gaining all but six of the 4,000 seats on municipal councils.

This was too much for Muhammad Moada, the leader of the largest legal opposition party, the Democratic Socialist Movement. His public accusations of electoral abuse won him an 11-year jail sentence on trumped-up charges of spying for Libya. Whether or not it will also prove too much for the Tunisian people remains to be seen.

Steve Sherman


LEADER: President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $1,790
Monetary unit: dinar (a dinar is currently worth just under one US dollar).
Main exports: textiles, clothing & leather (35%), oil & petroleum products (18%), phosphates (13%).
Main imports: textiles (22%), machinery (22%), petroleum (9%), vehicles (3%).
Tunisia was the first southern Mediterranean state to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union (in 1995), it has managed to temper an IMF program with a commitment to maintaining services, and its economy looks very healthy by regional standards.

PEOPLE: 8.9 million

HEALTH: Infant mortality 30 per 1,000 live births (France 7 per 1,000).

CULTURE: Overwhelmingly Arabic, with small (under 7%) Berber minorities.
Religion: Muslim, with a small Jewish community, mostly on the island of Djerba.
Language: Arabic, though the old colonial language, French, is still widely spoken.

Sources State of the World’s Children 1997, UNICEF; The World: A Third World Guide 1997/98.

Previously profiled November 1986


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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Middle class has benefited from IMF-inspired reforms. Government has maintained its commitment to public funding services.
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[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
67 per cent
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[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Income from textiles and tourism contribute most to an export/import ratio of 72%.
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[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown]
Political dissent is barely tolerated. Despite the appearance of democratic pluralism, Tunisia is a one-party police state where people rarely talk politics outside the home.
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[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Women’s rights within family law are unique in the Arab world, access to education and primary health is good.
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[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
69 years, one of the highest in Africa
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[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown]
The Government has clearly delivered on the economic front. But this has to be measured against the almost complete denial of democratic freedoms. Given the degree of domestic prosperity, it would probably be genuinely popular if it gave people the chance of free democratic expression..

NI star rating

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New Internationalist issue 293 magazine cover This article is from the August 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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