Tunisia: at a glance
Earlier this year, outside a local cafe just off a bustling street in one of Tunis’ sprawling neighbourhoods, a group of teenagers were vocal about their country’s affairs. They hated the police, who had beaten and arrested their friends. They felt, all in all, lost and hopeless. ‘Once I turn 18, I’ll try to make the crossing to Europe with my friends – at least there’s money there,’ said one.
How was it that 10 years since Tunisians had ousted autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – initiating what has often been hailed as the one democratic success story of the Arab Spring – they still felt this despondent?
Tunisia visibly bears the imprint of its different occupiers and civilizations. Traces of its indigenous Amazigh people are found in its dialect and cuisine. Carthaginian and Roman ruins are scattered throughout the landscape, from Tunis’ Punic port, shaped like a crescent moon, to the impressive Roman amphitheatre of El Jem. The seventh century Arab Muslim conquest converted many Tunisians to Islam, while Ottoman rule shaped its buildings and cities. The French established a protectorate in 1881, which again transformed Tunisia’s culture, language and economy.
Since winning its independence from France in 1956, up until the 2011 revolution, Tunisians had lived under just two presidents: Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Both were ruthless strongmen who cracked down on dissent.
Bourguiba carried out sweeping reforms – many of which benefited poor people and women – that have kept the debate about his legacy alive today. When Ben Ali came to power in 1987, he claimed his leadership would hail a new era. He organized elections and was expected to take a softer approach towards religious fundamentalists.
However, in 1991 he banned the Islamist party Ennahdha. Human rights abuses increased as Ben Ali further empowered the national security forces. Though the middle class prospered under Ben Ali, economic inequality widened. He would win every election for the next 24 years with an overwhelming majority of the vote.
It was this dysfunctional state and economic misery that drove Mohammed Bouazizi, a fruit-seller in the interior town of Sidi Bouzid, to set himself alight in December 2010, sparking demonstrations across the country. On 14 January, Ben Ali fled the country with his family – and suitcases of gold and stolen cash – to Saudi Arabia. He died there in 2019.
In the years following the revolution, Tunisia saw its first free and fair elections, sweeping the Ennahdha party to power. In 2014, a new constitution was drawn up which ensured a careful separation of powers and framed Tunisia as a secular state.
But the past decade has also seen assassinations of political figures and horrific terrorist attacks, while attempts to migrate across the Mediterranean Sea have soared. Amid successive chaotic governments, the Tunisian dinar has significantly devalued and purchasing power has been greatly reduced. Tunisia is currently negotiating its fourth loan from the IMF in a decade.
It was in this context that an unlikely, populist candidate, Kais Saied, was elected president in 2019. His image as a ‘clean’, ‘uncorrupted’ law professor appealed to voters – especially the young – who were dissatisfied with the political elites.
In the course of the last year, Covid-19 has exacerbated Tunisia’s political and economic turmoil, and shattered the country’s health system. On 25 July, Saied invoked an emergency article of the constitution: dismissing the government, suspending parliament and assuming all executive powers. While the move was widely popular, critics called it a ‘coup’ and many are concerned this could usher in a new, darker chapter in the region’s one remaining democracy.
LEADER: President Kais Saied
ECONOMY: GNI per capita $3,100 (Algeria $3,550; France $42,330).
Monetary unit: Tunisian dinar
Main exports: Insulated wire, textiles, crude petroleum, pure olive oil.
Tunisia’s trade balance is structurally negative and the country imports ($21.6bn) more than it exports ($14.9bn). Main trading partners are France, Italy, Germany, China and Algeria.
POPULATION: 11.8 million. Population annual growth rate: 0.75%. People per sq km 73 (UK 281).
HEALTH: Under-5 mortality rate 17 per 1,000 live births (Algeria 18.9). HIV prevalence: less than 1%. Tunisia’s health system was already under strain due to underfunding and the large working-age population.
ENVIRONMENT: Per capita CO2 emissions: 2.59 metric tonnes. Toxic and hazardous waste disposal has been ineffective, while water pollution from raw sewage and factory waste continues to cause problems. Tunisia has limited natural freshwater, and has suffered from soil erosion and desertification.
RELIGION: Sunni Muslim 99%. Until the 20th century there were also sizeable Jewish and Christian populations.
LANGUAGE: Arabic (official), French (language of commerce alongside Arabic, and spoken by around two thirds of the population).
HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX: 0.739, 95th of 189 countries (Algeria 0.748; France 0.901).
INCOME DISTRIBUTION ★★✩✩✩
There is an enduring economic divide between Tunisia’s rich coastal elites and poorer interior towns. Over 40% of Tunisians work in the informal economy with no access to stable income, social security or pandemic-related compensation. 15.2% of the population lives below the poverty line.
Tunisia has a high literacy rate (79%) which continues to improve each year. Post-independence, president Borguiba made education a priority with the focus on modernizing the system. Education was free and compulsory for all.
LIFE EXPECTANCY ★★★★✩
77 years (France 83, Algeria 77).
POSITION OF WOMEN ★★★✩✩
Tunisia has been ahead of other North African countries in addressing gender inequality. Bourguiba introduced new reforms in the 1950s, outlawing polygamy and giving women the right to divorce. By 1973 birth control and abortion were legal – preceding France. But culturally, Tunisian women still face many obstacles.
Since 2011, Tunisia has witnessed a transformation in terms of freedom of speech and expression. However, there have been recent arrests for social media posts criticizing the army and for blasphemy. Traces of the pre-2011 police state also remain and some officers continue to torture and harass detainees.
SEXUAL MINORITIES ★✩✩✩✩
Homosexuality remains criminal (in line with an old colonial law) and there have been several cases of forced anal examinations. Police regularly harass, target and detain LGBTQI+ people. Trans Tunisians are particularly at risk.
Corruption became rife after Ben Ali’s marriage to Leïla Trabelsi, which ushered in a new era of mafia-type rule with power centred around Trabelsi’s brothers. The family stole billions of dollars from Tunisia over the course of the next decade. Post-2011, governments have sought but struggled to tackle enduring corruption. Kais Saied’s recent dismissal of the government has been branded a coup.
This article is from
the November-December 2021 issue
of New Internationalist.
- Discover unique global perspectives
- Support cutting-edge independent media
- Magazine delivered to your door or inbox
- Digital archive of over 500 issues
- Fund in-depth, high quality journalism