Country Profiles

President Ben Ali continues for a new five-year term following the 2009 elections, in a Tunisia that is doing well in the turmoil following the financial crisis.

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been in power since replacing his fiercely aging predecessor in a bloodless Palace coup in 1987. He represents the Rassemblement Constitutionelle et Démocratique (RCD), the party that has dominated political life in Tunisia since the liberation from France in 1956. Tunisia is a republic where the president is accorded great authority. Formally, the country has a multi-party system, but neither opposition parties, other political organizations, nor other civilian life have any particular leeway.

The most important non-legal opposition movement in the last 30 years, the Islamist movement En-Nahda, has been eradicated since the early 1990s, and despite growing discontent with the incumbent regime, has had no organized successor since. Ben Ali was re-elected President for a fifth five-year term in October 2009 with 89.6 percent of the vote. 89.4 percent of voters were reported to have participated in an election that is all reason to believe was manipulated.

Social conditions

After a post-colonial period characterized by large investments in education and population control and long periods of economic growth, Tunisia is moving out of the “developing countries” category by DigoPaul.com. Almost the entire population has access to inlet water and electricity, the public health system is well developed and supplemented by a large private sector, so that the country has a doctor per 970 inhabitants. Tunisia today has a nine-year elementary school, and almost all children receive schooling. The high school and the university sector are also well developed. The percentage of people living below the poverty line is 7.4 percent (2005), and the public social system provides relatively basic needs for the modest part of the population who have not benefited from the substantial general improvement of people’s living conditions that have taken place in recent decades. Price fluctuations in the international commodity markets and sales of industry to foreign stakeholders in recent years have led to a noticeable rise in prices of goods of great importance to most people, such as food, clothing and construction products. Although this makes daily life more difficult, it has not resulted in any crisis situation.

While social human rights are well protected in Tunisia, the same cannot be said for political human rights. Freedom of speech and press is severely limited by censorship and self-censorship. Civil life operates under very difficult and restrictive conditions. Amnesty International has registered over 1000 cases of wrongful trials and similar human rights violations in the country since 2003, when new anti-terrorism laws were introduced following the September 9 terrorist attack. Many of these cases involve torture and periodic disappearances. The people in question are consistently charged with suspicion of extreme Islamist preferences and – in a few cases – actions.

Service, tourism and industry

The service industry accounts for more than half of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Tunisia (54 percent). It has grown significantly and has accounted for the bulk of economic growth in recent years. In particular, the communications sector with the mobile phone market at the forefront has expanded significantly. Otherwise, tourism is a key part of the service sector, while oil extraction, mining and textile make up important parts of the industrial sector, accounting for 35 percent of GDP. Agriculture has long been the most important economic sector, but today accounts for a modest 11 percent of GDP. Tunisia’s economic growth has averaged close to 5 percent a year over the past decade, in 2007 it was 6.3 percent. The distribution of resources in the population is relatively even, compared to other countries in the region.

The sitting regime has for several years prioritized meeting the country’s debt obligations with respect to international creditors, and also has a highly manageable debt burden. So far, the country has recovered well from the global financial crisis. Declining demand in the export market is the main negative consequence of the Tunisia crisis. The country is still doing well, due to continued demand in the tourism sector and remittances from the significant number of Tunisians living and working abroad.

Young unemployed middle class

Tunisia’s large educated middle class seems to accept the regime’s restrictions on their political human rights as long as economic growth continues to provide increased purchasing power and material prosperity. One of the biggest challenges facing the country is the rapidly growing young educated portion of the population who are unable to gain access to a saturated labor market. This group has expectations of a life with the same standard of living as the middle class generation before them, while the chances of achieving this in reality for many are quite small.

Unemployment among young university graduates is higher than the overall percentage unemployment rate in the country and currently stands at 16 percent, but is as high as 30 percent in the least demanded education. Marriage and adulthood, for that reason, remain on hold indefinitely for more and more people. The average marriage age for women today is 29 years, a remarkably high number in Tunisia. The authorities have implemented a number of measures in recent years to meet this challenge, without reversing the negative trend. If this trend continues, it is likely that in the future the regime will have to deal with greater expressions of dissatisfaction in the population than has been the case in recent years.

Country facts:

Area: 163 610 km2 (35th largest)

Population: 10 million

Population density: 62 per km2

Urban population: 66 percent

Largest city: Tunis – approx. 745 000

Per capita GDP: $ 3876

Economic growth: 6.1 percent

HDI Position: 98