For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.
Area: 163,610 sq. km. (63,378 sq. mi.), slightly smaller than Missouri.
Cities: Capital--Tunis; Greater Tunis urban area: pop. 2,083,000 (includes Tunis, Ariana, Ben Arous, and Manouba governorates) Sfax (pop. 820,100).
Terrain: Arable land in north and along central coast; south is mostly semiarid or desert.
Climate: Hot, dry summers and mild, rainy winters.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Tunisian(s).
Population (2003): 9.9 million.
Annual growth rate (2003): 1.14%.
Ethnic groups: Arab-Berber 98%, European 1%, other 1%.
Religions: Muslim 98%, Christian 1%, Jewish less than 1%.
Languages: Arabic (official), French.
Education: Years compulsory--9. Literacy--66.7% (male 78.6%; female 54.6%).
Health (2001): Infant mortality rate--25.8/1,000. Life expectancy--70.1 years male, 74.2 years female.
Work force (2003, 3.4 million) Services--44.1%; industry--33.2%; agriculture--22%.
Constitution: June 1, 1959; amended July 12, 1988, June 29, 1999, and June 1, 2002.
Independence: March 20, 1956.
Branches: Executive--chief of state President Zine El Abidine BEN ALI (since November 7, 1987) head of government, Prime Minister Mohamed GHANNOUCHI (since November 17, 1999) cabinet, Council of Ministers appointed by the president; president elected by popular vote for a 5-year term; election last held October 24, 1999 (next to be held in October 2004); prime minister appointed by the president. Election results: President Zine El Abidine BEN ALI reelected for a third term; candidates from opposition: Mohamed Belhaj Amor (PUP) and Abderrahmene Tlili (UDU); percent of vote--Zine El Abidine BEN ALI 99.44% (officially).
Legislative--unicameral Chamber of Deputies or Majlis al-Nuwaab (182 seats; 5-year terms; 148 seats are elected by popular vote for party lists on a winner-take-all basis). An additional 34 seats (20% of the total) are distributed to opposition parties on a proportional basis as provided for in 1999 constitutional amendments; a referendum in 2002 created a second chamber. Elections last held October 24, 1999 (next to be held in October 2004).
Election results: percent of vote by party--RCD 92%; seats by party-- RCD 148, MDS 13, UDU 7, PUP 7, Al-Tajdid 5, PSL 2. Note: The opposition increased number of seats from 19 to 34. Judicial--independent District Courts, Courts of Appeal, Highest Court (Cour de Cassation). Judges of the highest court are appointed by the President.
Political parties: Et-Tajdid Movement (Mohamed Harmel); Constitutional Democratic Rally Party (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique) or RCD President Zine El Abidine BEN ALI (official ruling party); Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties or FDTL (Mustapha Ben Jaafar); Liberal Social Party or PSL (Mounir Beji); Movement of Democratic Socialists or MDS (Ismail Boulahia); Popular Unity Party or PUP (Mohamed Bouchiha); Unionist Democratic Union or UDU (vacant); Democratic Progressive Party or PDP (Nejib Chebbi).
Political pressure groups and leaders: Legal--Tunisian Human Rights League or LTDH (Mokhtar Trifi). Outlawed--An-Nahda (Renaissance) the Islamic fundamentalist party (Rached El Ghanouchi); National Council for Liberties in Tunisia or CNLT (Sihem Ben Sedrine); Congress for the Republic or CPR (Moncef Marzouki); Tunisian Communist Labor Party or POCT (Hamma Hammami); Tunisian Green Party or PVT (Abdelkader Zitouni).
Administrative divisions: 24 governorates--Ariana, Beja, Ben Arous, Bizerte, EL Kef, Gabes, Gafsa, Jendouba, Kairouan, Kasserine, Kebili, Mahdia, Manouba, Medenine, Monastir, Nabeul, Sfax, Sidi Biu Zid, Siliana, Sousse, Tataouine, Tozeur, Tunis, Zaghouan.
Suffrage: Universal at 20 (Active duty members of the military may not vote.).
GDP (2003): $14.4 billion.
Growth rate (2003): 5.5%.
Per capita current GDP (2003): $2343.
Natural resources: crude oil, gas, phosphates, iron ore, lead, zinc, salt.
Agriculture (12.4% of GDP): Products--olives, beets, dates, oranges, almonds, grain, sugar.
Industry (29.5% of GDP): Types--petroleum, mining (particularly phosphate), textiles, footwear, food processing.
Services (38.1% of GDP): Tourism, commerce, transport, communications.
Trade (2003): Exports--$7.9 billion: hydrocarbons, agricultural products, phosphates, chemicals, textiles, mechanical, electric components By region--Africa 7.7%, Americas 1.5%, Asia 3.0%, Europe 84.3%. By country (U.S.$million)--France $2569.1, Italy $1741.5, Germany, $844, Belgium, $309.8, Libya, $346.4, U.S. $47.7, Spain $367.8. Imports ($10.7 billion)--industrial goods and equipment, hydrocarbons, food, consumer goods. By region--Africa 5.9%, Americas 5.2% Asia 8.3%, Europe 79.1%. By country (U.S.$million)--France $2788.5, Italy $2141, Germany $967.8, Belgium $315.9, Libya $351.4, U.S. $263.7, Spain $571.6.
Trade balance deficit: $2.8 billion.
Modern Tunisians are the descendents of indigenous Berbers and of people from numerous civilizations that have invaded, migrated to, and been assimilated into the population over the millenia. Recorded history in Tunisia begins with the arrival of Phoenicians, who founded Carthage and other North African settlements in the 8th century BC. Carthage became a major sea power, clashing with Rome for control of the Mediterranean until it was defeated and captured by the Romans in 146 B.C. The Romans ruled and settled in North Africa until the 5th century when the Roman Empire fell and Tunisia was invaded by European tribes, including the Vandals. The Muslim conquest in the 7th century transformed Tunisia's and the make-up of its population, with subsequent waves of migration from around the Arab and Ottoman world, including significant numbers of Spanish Moors and Jews at the end of the 15th century. Tunisia became a center of Arab culture and learning and was assimilated into the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. It was a French protectorate from 1881 until independence in 1956, and retains close political, economic, and cultural ties with France.
Nearly all Tunisians (98% of the population) are Muslim. There has been a Jewish population on the southern island of Djerba for 2000 years, and there remains a small Jewish population in Tunis which is descended from those who fled Spain in the late 15th century. There is no indigenous Christian population. Small nomadic indigenous minorities have been mostly assimilated into the larger population.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
Tunisia is a republic with a strong presidential system dominated by a single political party. President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali has been in office since 1987 when he deposed Habib Bourguiba, who had been President since Tunisia's independence from France in 1956. The ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Assembly (RCD), was the sole legal party for 25 years--when it was known as the Socialist Destourian Party (PSD)--and still dominates political life. The President is elected to 5-year terms--with virtually no opposition--and appoints a Prime Minister and cabinet, who play a strong role in the execution of policy. Regional governors and local administrators also are appointed by the central government; largely consultative mayors and municipal councils are elected. There is a unicameral legislative body, the Chamber of Deputies, which has 182 seats, 20% of which are reserved for the opposition. It plays a growing role as an arena for debate on national policy but never originates legislation and virtually always passes bills presented by the executive with only minor changes. The judiciary is nominally independent but responds to executive direction especially in political cases. The military is professional and does not play a role in politics.
Tunisia's independence from France in 1956 ended a protectorate established in 1881. President Bourguiba, who had been the leader of the independence movement, declared Tunisia a republic in 1957, ending the nominal rule of the former Ottoman Beys. In June 1959 Tunisia adopted a Constitution modeled on the French system, which established the basic outline of the highly centralized presidential system that continues today. The military was given a defined defensive role, which excluded participation in politics. Starting from independence, President Bourguiba placed strong emphasis on economic and social development, especially education, the status of women, and the creation of jobs, policies continued under the Ben Ali administration. The results were strong social indicators--high literacy and school attendance rates, low population growth rates, and relatively low poverty rates--and generally steady economic growth rates. These pragmatic policies have contributed to social and political stability.
Progress toward full democracy has been slow. Over the years President Bourguiba stood unopposed for re-election several times and was named "President for life" in 1974 by a constitutional amendment. At the time of independence, the Neo-Destourian Party (later the PSD)--enjoying broad support because of its role at the forefront of the independence movement--became the sole legal party when opposition parties were banned until 1981.
When President Ben Ali came to power in 1987 he promised greater democratic openness and respect for human rights, signing a "national pact" with opposition parties. He oversaw constitutional and legal changes, including abolishing the concept of president for life, the establishment of presidential term limits, and provision for greater opposition party participation in political life. But the ruling party, renamed the Democratic Constitutional Assembly (RCD), continued to dominate the political scene because of its historic popularity and the advantage it enjoyed as the ruling party. Ben Ali ran for re-election unopposed in 1989 and 1994, and won 99.44% of the vote in 1999 when he faced two weak opponents. The RCD won all seats in the Chamber of Deputies in 1989, and won all of the directly elected seats in the 1994 and 1999 elections. However, constitutional amendments in those years provided for the distribution of additional seats to the opposition parties in 1999. Currently, five opposition parties share 33 of the 182 seats in the Chamber. A May 2002 referendum approved constitutional changes proposed by Ben Ali to allow him to run for a fourth term in 2004, created a second parliamentary chamber, and provided for other changes.
There are currently seven legal opposition parties, the Social Democratic Movement (MDS), the Popular Unity Party (PUP), the Union of Democratic Unionists (UDU), Ettajdid (also called the Renewal Movement), the Social Liberal Party (PSL), plus the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP) and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties or FDTL, the only two not represented in the Chamber of Deputies. Most accept the basic economic and social policies of the government but are critical of the pace of democratization in the country--and focus considerable attention on support for Arab causes. The parties are generally weak and divided and face considerable restrictions on their ability to organize. The Islamist opposition party, An-Nadha, was allowed to operate openly in the late 1980s and early 1990s despite a ban on religiously based parties. The government outlawed An-Nadha as a terrorist organization in 1991 and arrested its leaders and thousands of party members and sympathizers, accusing them of plotting to overthrow the President. The party is no longer openly active in Tunisia, and its leaders operate from exile in London. There are several pro-democracy activists who have been denied permission to establish other opposition political parties.
While there are thousands of nominally established non-governmental organizations, civil society also is weak. The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), the first such organization in the Arab world, operates under restrictions and suffers from internal divisions. The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), the Young Lawyers Association, and the Bar Association also are active. The government has denied legal status to a handful of other human rights advocacy groups who, nonetheless, attempt to gather and publicize information on the human rights situation in the country.
Although Tunisia states it is committed to making progress toward a democratic system, citizens still do not have full political freedom. There are curbs on the press and on freedom of speech. Many critics have called for clearer, effective distinctions between executive, legislative, and judicial powers. The foreign press and foreign-based satellite television channels have criticized the Tunisian Government and demanded more freedom of speech and greater respect for human rights. There are frequent reports of widespread torture and abuse of prisoners, especially political prisoners, by security officers.
Trade unions have played a key role in Tunisia's history since the struggle for independence, when the 1952 assassination of labor leader Farhat Hached was a catalyst for the final push for against French domination. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), the country's sole labor confederation, has generally focused on bread-and-butter issues but at some critical moments in Tunisia's history has played a decisive role in the nation's political life. Despite a drop in union membership from 400,000 to about 250,000 as the structure of the Tunisian economy changed, the UGTT continues to hold a prominent place in Tunisia's political and social life, and negotiates with government and the umbrella employer group for higher wages and better benefits. The current leadership, headed by Abdessalem Jerad, was elected at an extraordinary congress in February 2002, held to reset the union's direction after its former long-time leader was removed for embezzlement in 2000. The current board of directors includes some former dissidents and has pledged to reinvigorate the union and increase its role in the country's political life.
Tunisia is a leader in the Arab world in promoting the legal and social status of women. A Personal Status Code was adopted shortly after independence in 1956 which, among other things, gave women full legal status (allowing them to run and own businesses, have bank accounts, and seek passports under their own authority) and outlawed polygamy. The government required parents to send girls to school, and today more than 50% of university students are women. Rights of women and children were further enhanced by 1993 reforms, which included a provision to allow Tunisian women to transmit citizenship even if they are married to a foreigner and living abroad. The government has supported a remarkably successful family planning program that has reduced the population growth rate to just over 1% per annum, contributing to Tunisia's economic and social stability.
Tunisia's judiciary is headed by the Court of Cassation, whose judges are appointed by the president. The country is divided administratively into 23 governorates. The president appoints all governors.
Principal Government Officials
President--Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali
Prime Minister--Mohamed Ghannouchi
Minister of State--Abdelaziz Ben Dhia
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Habib Ben Yahia
Minister of National Defense--Daly Jazi
Ambassador to the United States--vacant
Tunisia's embassy in the United States is located at 1515 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20005 (tel. 1-202-862-1850, fax 1-202-862-1858).
Tunisia is in the process of economic reform and liberalization after decades of heavy state direction and participation in the economy. Prudent economic and fiscal planning have resulted in moderate sustained growth for over a decade. Tunisia's economic growth historically has depended on oil, phosphates, agriculture, and tourism. The government's economic policies had limited success during the early years of independence. During the 1960s, a drive for collectivization caused unrest, and farm production fell sharply. Higher prices for phosphates and oil and growing revenues from tourism stimulated growth in the 1970s, but an emphasis on protectionism and import substitution led to inefficiencies. Tunisia received considerable economic assistance during this period from the United States and European and Arab countries and is one of the few developing countries in the region to have moved into the "middle income" category.
An overvalued dinar and a growing foreign debt sparked a foreign exchange crisis in the mid-1980s. In 1986, the government launched a structural adjustment program to liberalize prices, reduce tariffs, and reorient Tunisia toward a market economy.
Tunisia's economic reform program has been lauded as a model by international financial institutions. The government has liberalized prices, reduced tariffs, lowered debt-service-to-exports and debt-to-GDP ratios, and extended the average maturity of its $10 billion foreign debt. Structural adjustment brought additional lending from the World Bank and other Western creditors. In 1990, Tunisia acceded to the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
In 1996 Tunisia entered into an "Association Agreement" with the European Union (EU) which will remove tariff and other trade barriers on most goods by 2008. In conjunction with the Association Agreement, the EU is assisting the Tunisian Government's Mise A Niveau (upgrading) program to enhance the productivity of Tunisian businesses and prepare for competition in the global marketplace.
The government has totally or partially privatized about 160 state-owned enterprises since the privatization program was launched in 1987. Although the program is supported by the UGTT, the government has had to move carefully to avoid mass firings. Unemployment continues to plague Tunisia's economy and is aggravated by a rapidly growing work force. An estimated 55% of the population is under the age of 25. Officially, 14.3% of the Tunisian work force is unemployed, but the real numbers of jobless or underemployed are higher.
In 1992, Tunisia reentered the private international capital market for the first time in 6 years, securing a $10-million line of credit for balance-of-payments support. In January 2003 Standard and Poor affirmed its investment grade credit ratings for Tunisia. The World Economic Forum 2002-03 ranked Tunisia 34th in the Global Competitiveness Index Ratings (two places behind South Africa, the continent's leader). In April 2002, Tunisia's first dollar-denominated sovereign bond issue since 1997 raised U.S.$458 million, with maturity in 2012.
The stock exchange is under the control of the state-run Financial Market Council and lists nearly 50 companies. The government offers substantial tax incentives to encourage companies to join the exchange, but expansion is still slow.
The Tunisian Government adopted a unified investment code in 1993 to attract foreign capital. More than 1,600 export-oriented joint venture firms operate in Tunisia to take advantage of relatively low labor costs and preferential access to nearby European markets. Economic links are closest with European countries, which dominate Tunisia's trade. Tunisia's currency, the dinar, is not traded outside Tunisia. However, partial convertibility exists for bonafide commercial and investment transaction. Certain restrictions still limit operations carried out by Tunisian residents.
In October 2002 the U.S. and Tunisia signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) designed to provide a forum for discussions on expanding trade and investment between the two countries. The first U.S.-Tunisia Council on Trade and Investment envisioned under the agreement took place in Washington DC in October 2003, and the second is scheduled for Fall 2004. TIFA's can be the first step towards a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the Government of Tunisia has expressed interest in concluding an FTA with the United States at some point in the future.
President Ben Ali has maintained Tunisia's long-time policy of seeking good relations with the West, including the United States, while playing an active role in Arab and African regional bodies. President Bourguiba took a nonaligned stance but emphasized close relations with Europe and the United States.
Tunisia has long been a voice for moderation and realism in the Middle East. President Bourguiba was the first Arab leader to call for the recognition of Israel in a speech in Jericho in 1965. Tunisia served as the headquarters of the Arab League from 1979 to 1990 and hosted the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) headquarters from 1982 to 1993, when the PLO Executive Committee relocated to Jericho and the Palestinian Authority was established after the signing of the Oslo Agreement. (The PLO Political Department remains in Tunis.) Tunisia consistently has played a moderating role in the negotiations for a comprehensive Middle East peace. In 1993, Tunisia was the first Arab country to host an official Israeli delegation as part of the Middle East peace process and maintained an Interests Section until the outbreak of the 2000 Intifada. Israeli citizens of Tunisian descent may travel to Tunisia on their Israeli passports.
Wedged between Algeria and Libya, Tunisia has sought to maintain good relations with its neighbors despite occasionally strained relations. Tunisia and Algeria resolved a longstanding border dispute in 1993 and have cooperated in the construction of a natural gas pipeline through Tunisia that connects Algeria to Italy. Tunisia recently signed an agreement with Algeria to demarcate the maritime frontier between the two countries.
Tunisia's relations with Libya have been erratic since Tunisia annulled a brief agreement to form a union in 1974. Diplomatic relations were broken in 1976, restored in 1977, and deteriorated again in 1980, when Libyan-trained rebels attempted to seize the town of Gafsa. In 1982, the International Court of Justice ruled in Libya's favor in the partition of the oil-rich continental shelf it shares with Tunisia. Libya's 1985 expulsion of Tunisian workers and military threats led Tunisia to sever relations. Relations were normalized again in 1987. While supporting the UN sanctions imposed following airline bombings, Tunisia has been careful to maintain positive relations with her neighbor. Tunisia supported the lifting of UN sanctions against Libya in 2003, and Libya is again becoming a major trading partner.
Tunisia has supported the development of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), which includes Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and Libya. Progress on Maghreb integration remains stymied, however, as a result of bilateral tensions between some member countries.
The United States has very good relations with Tunisia, which date back more than 200 years. The United States has maintained official representation in Tunis almost continuously since 1797, and the American treaty with Tunisia was signed in 1799. The two governments are not linked by security treaties, but relations have been close since Tunisia's independence. U.S.-Tunisian relations suffered briefly after the 1985 Israeli raid on PLO headquarters in Tunis, after the 1988 assassination of PLO terrorist Abu Jihad, and in 1990 during the Gulf War when Tunisia objected to U.S. intervention following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. In each case, however, relations warmed again quickly, reflecting strong bilateral ties. The United States and Tunisia have an active schedule of joint military exercises. U.S. security assistance historically has played an important role in cementing relations. The U.S.-Tunisian Joint Military Commission meets annually to discuss military cooperation, Tunisia's defense modernization program, and other security matters.
The United States first provided economic and technical assistance to Tunisia under a bilateral agreement signed March 26, 1957. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) managed a successful program until its departure in 1994, when Tunisia's economic advances led to the country's "graduation" from USAID funding. Tunisia enthusiastically supported the U.S.-North African Economic Partnership (USNAEP) designed to promote U.S. investment in, and economic integration of the Maghreb region. The program provided over $4 million between 2001 and 2003 in assistance to Tunisia. The Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) was launched in 2002 and incorporated the former USNAEP economic reform projects while adding bilateral and regional projects for education reform, civil society development and women's empowerment. On 18 August 2004, the MEPI Regional Office opened in Embassy Tunis. The Regional Office is staffed by both American diplomats and regional specialists. It is responsible for coordinating MEPI activities in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia in close coordination with the American Embassies in those countries.
American private assistance has been provided liberally since independence by foundations, religious groups, universities, and philanthropic organizations. The U.S. Government has supported Tunisia's efforts to attract foreign investment. The United States and Tunisia concluded a bilateral investment treaty in 1990 and an agreement to avoid double taxation in 1989. In October 2002, the U.S. and Tunisia signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), and in October 2003 held the first TIFA Council Meeting in Washington, DC.
American firms seeking to invest in Tunisia and export to Tunisia can receive insurance and financing for their business through U.S. Government agencies, including the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the Export-Import Bank. The best prospects for foreigners interested in the Tunisian market are in high technology, energy, agribusiness, food processing, medical care and equipment, and the environmental and tourism sectors.
Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--William J. Hudson
Deputy Chief of Mission--David L. Ballard
Political/Economic Counselor--Elizabeth A. Hopkins
Commercial Attach�--Amy Lenk
The U.S. Embassy in Tunisia is located in Zone Nord-Est des Berges du Lac, Nord de Tunis, 2045 La Goulette, Tunisie (tel: 216-71-107-000, fax: 216-71-962-115)