Tunisia's economy has emerged from rigid state control and is now partially liberalized. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Tunisia's prudent economic policies, coupled with World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) support, have resulted in stable growth with healthy exports, a strong tourism sector, and favorable climatic conditions for agricultural production.
Economically and commercially, Tunisia is very closely linked to Europe. Tunisia signed an Association Agreement with the European Union (EU), which went into effect on January 1, 2008. The agreement eliminates customs tariffs and other trade barriers on manufactured goods, and provides for the establishment of an EU-Tunisia free trade area in goods, but not in agriculture or services; trade negotiations in these areas are ongoing.
Manufacturing industries, producing largely for export, are a major source of foreign currency revenue. Industrial production represents about 31.5% of GDP. It primarily consists of petroleum, mining (particularly phosphates), textiles, footwear, food processing, and electrical and mechanical manufactures. Textiles are a major source of foreign currency revenue, with more than 90% of production being exported. The Government of Tunisia, working with the European Commission and other partners, has implemented several programs to upgrade the capacity of key industrial sectors to remain competitive while the country gradually opens to trade with Europe and other regions.
Tourism is a major source of foreign exchange, representing about 11.57% of hard currency receipts ($2.572 billion), as well as an important sector for employment. In 2009, 6.9 million tourists visited Tunisia, hailing largely from Europe and North Africa. While the influx of tourists represents a boon to the economy, Tunisia's large diaspora (about 1 million) also makes a positive and significant contribution. In 2009, remittances from abroad reached 2.652 billion dinars (approximately $1.965 billion), or roughly 4.51% of Tunisia’s GDP and 7.25 % of the country’s foreign currency earnings (TND 11.687 billion, or U.S. $9.583 billion).
The country is a net importer of hydrocarbon products. Domestic crude production is 91,380 barrels per day, but refining capacity is only 34,000 barrels a day. Proven reserves are in the region of 400 million barrels. Tunisia has one oil refinery on the north coast in Bizerte and in May 2006 awarded a tender to Qatar Petroleum for a second at La Skhira, near Gabes. Natural gas production is currently about 3 million tons oil equivalent. Proven reserves are about 65.13 billion cubic feet, two-thirds of which are located offshore.
The United States and Tunisia signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) in October 2002 and follow-up TIFA Council meetings were held in October 2003, June 2005, and March 2008. Although TIFAs could serve as precursor agreements leading to bilateral Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), little progress has been made toward generating the necessary reforms required to engender an FTA. In 2004, Tunisia signed the framework agreement for a multilateral trade agreement with Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, known as the Agadir Agreement. The Agadir Agreement creates a potential market of over 100 million people across North Africa and into the Middle East.
The government still retains control over certain "strategic" sectors of the economy (finance, hydrocarbons, aviation, electricity and gas distribution, and water resources) but the private sector is playing an increasingly important role. Tunisia is a founding member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and is publicly committed to a free trade regime and export-led growth. In August 2010, the Government of Tunisia passed a law opening the Tunisian economy to foreign franchises in the sectors of retail/distribution, tourism, automotives, and training. Tunisia must approve franchising in other sectors, such as food service and real estate, on a case-by-case basis.
The Government of Tunisia is beginning to take a more proactive stance on intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement and education. Tunisia's recent intellectual property rights law is designed to meet WTO TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property) minimum standards and there is ongoing collaboration between the United States and Tunisian governments to promote public awareness of these rights.
The Central Bank is moving from direct management of the financial sector toward a more traditional supervisory and regulatory role. Commercial banks are permitted to participate in the forward foreign exchange market. The dinar is convertible for current account transactions but some convertible dinar/foreign exchange account transactions still require Central Bank authorization. Total convertibility of the Tunisian dinar is probably still some years away, though the Government of Tunisia has publicly pledged full liberalization by 2014.
Tunisia has a relatively well-developed infrastructure that includes six commercial seaports and seven international airports. Eight Arab and foreign groups were shortlisted for the construction, financing, and exploitation of a deep water port project at Enfidha (approximately 100 miles south of Tunis).
Average annual income per capita in Tunisia is over $3,851. On July 1, 2010, the minimum monthly legal wage for a 48-hour week was raised to TND 272.480 ($179.56) and for 40 hours to TND 235.040 ($154.89).
While Tunisia’s growth rate has averaged 5% over the past decade, its development goals require an average 6%-7% growth rate. In 2009, real GDP growth was 3.1% and inflation was 3.7%, down from 5.1% the previous year. According to official figures, Tunisia has 13.3% unemployment, but it is generally believed to be much higher in some regions. Despite the present low rate of population growth, a demographic peak is now hitting higher education and the job market. Tunisia has invested heavily in education, and the number of students enrolled at university has soared from 41,000 in 1986 to over 357,472 in 2009. Providing jobs for these highly educated people represents a major challenge for the Government of Tunisia.
Real GDP (2009, base 1990) TND 25.813 billion (U.S. $19.13 billion).
Real GDP growth rate (2009): 3.1%.
Per capita GDP, PPP (2009, IMF est.): $8,254.
Natural resources: natural gas, crude oil, phosphates, salt, iron ore.
Agriculture: Products--olives, olive oil, grain, tomatoes, citrus fruit, sugar beets, dates, almonds; beef, dairy products.
Industry: Types--petroleum, mining (particularly phosphate), textiles, footwear, food processing, electric and mechanical components.
Services: Tourism, commerce, transport, communications.
Sector information as percentage of GDP (2009 est.): Services 43% (of which 5.5% for tourism); industry 31.5%; agriculture and fishing 8.9%.
Trade (2009): Exports--$14.42 billion: clothing, semi-finished goods and textiles, agricultural products, mechanical goods, phosphates and chemicals, hydrocarbons, electrical equipment. By region--Europe 76.13%, Africa 13.12%, Asia 4.99%, Americas 2.6%. By country (U.S. $)--France $4.27 billion; Italy $3.03 billion; Germany $1.26 billion; Spain $486.24 million; Libya $830.8 million; U.K. $685.8 million; Belgium $319.15 million; U.S. $196.59 million. Imports--$19.03 billion: textiles, machinery and equipment, hydrocarbons, chemicals, foodstuffs. By region--Europe 72.58%, Asia 12.64%, Africa 7.21%, Americas 7.08%. By country (U.S. $)--France $3.83 billion; Italy $3.11 billion; Germany $1.66 billion; Spain $864.67 million; China $954.04 million; Libya $559.01 million; U.S. $761.53 million.
Tunisia is a republic with a strong presidential system dominated by a single political party. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been in office since 1987, when he deposed Habib Bourguiba, president since Tunisia's independence from France in 1956. The ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), was the sole legal party for 25 years--including 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 are also appointed by the central government; largely consultative mayors and municipal councils are elected. There is a bicameral legislative body. The Chamber of Deputies has 214 seats. The Chamber of Deputies plays a limited 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 Chamber of Advisors (created by referendum in 2002), has 126 seats (85 elected by municipal officials and professional associations; 41 members are presidential appointees.) Members are elected for 6-year terms, with half of the chamber renewed every 3 years. First-time elections for the Chamber of Advisors took place in July 2005; half of these seats were up for re-election in August 2008. The judiciary is nominally independent, but responds to executive direction, especially in politically sensitive 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 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 that continued under the Ben Ali administration. The result was strong social progress--high literacy and school attendance rates, low population growth rates, and relatively low poverty rates--and generally steady economic growth. 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. 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, including the unauthorized Islamic An-Nahdha party. 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 Rally (RCD), continued to dominate the political scene. The RCD won all seats in the Chamber of Deputies in 1989, and won all of the directly elected seats in the 1994, 1999, and 2004 elections. However, constitutional amendments provided for the distribution of additional seats to the opposition parties by 1999 and 2004. Currently, six opposition parties share 53 of the 214 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
Ben Ali ran for re-election unopposed in 1989 and 1994. In the multiparty era, he won 99.44% of the vote in 1999 and 94.49% of the vote in 2004. In both elections he faced weak opponents. A May 2002 referendum approved constitutional changes proposed by Ben Ali that allowed him to run for a fifth term in 2009. Ben Ali won re-election in October 2009 with 89% of the vote (and 89% participation). The referendum also created a second parliamentary chamber, the Chamber of Advisors, and provided for other changes. On July 28, 2008 President Ben Ali approved a constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18.
There are currently eight legal opposition parties, the Social Democratic Movement (MDS), the Popular Unity Party (PUP), the Union of Democratic Unionists (UDU), At-Tajdid (also called the Renewal Movement), the Liberal Social Party (PSL), and the Green Party for Progress (PVP), plus the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP) and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties (FDTL), the only two not represented in the Chamber of Deputies. The parties are generally weak and divided and face considerable restrictions on their ability to organize. The Islamist opposition party, An-Nahdha, was allowed to operate openly in the late 1980s and early 1990s despite a ban on religiously based parties. The government outlawed An-Nahdha 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. Several activists have been denied permission to establish other opposition political parties.
While there are thousands of official, established non-governmental organizations, civil society remains weak and divided. The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), the first human rights organization in Africa and the Arab world, operates under restrictions and suffers from state intrusion. Some independent organizations, such as the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development, 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 organize and publicize information on the human rights situation in the country.
Despite the Government of Tunisia's stated commitment to making progress toward a democratic system, citizens do not enjoy political freedom. The government imposes restrictions on freedom of association and speech and does not allow a free press. Many critics have called for clearer, effective distinctions between executive, legislative, and judicial powers. Foreign media, including foreign-based satellite television channels, have criticized the Tunisian Government for the lack of press freedom. Tunisia ranked number 154 out of 173 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders list of World Press Freedom rankings, down from 143 in the previous year. As reflected in the State Department's annual human rights report, there are frequent reports of torture and abuse of prisoners, especially political prisoners.
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 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 on wages and benefits. The current leadership under Abdessalem Jerad was elected at the 21st UGTT Congress held in December 2006. The Tunisian Journalist Association’s (AJT) membership was suspended by the International Federation of Journalists from 2004-2007 for failing to defend freedom of the press. Seeking to gain some national autonomy and bargaining power with the government, in January 2008 Tunisian journalists created a union, the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT). Neji B’ghouri, who billed himself as an independent, was elected its first president but was replaced in 2009 by Jamal Kermaoui following contested elections. In July 2010, a new Syndicate of Tunisian Writers was created to protect writers against perceived marginalization and exploitation and to collectively lobby the government for more benefits for its members. Questions remain as to how effective it will be in changing the political atmosphere.
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). It also, for the first time in the Arab world, outlawed polygamy. The government required parents to send girls to school, and today more than 50% of university students are women and 66% of judges and lawyers 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 head is appointed by the minister of justice and human rights. The country is divided administratively into 24 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--Kamel Morjane
Minister of National Defense--Ridha Grira
Ambassador to the United States--Mohamed Salah Tekaya
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).
Constitution: June 1, 1959; amended July 12, 1988, June 29, 1999, June 1, 2002, May 13, 2003, and July 28, 2008.
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, 2004 (next to be held in October 2009); prime minister appointed by the president. Election results: President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali reelected for a fourth term; candidates from opposition: Mohamed Bouchiha (PUP), Mohamed Ali Halouani (At-Tajdid) and Mounir Beji (PSL); percentage of vote--Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 94.49% (officially).
Legislative--bicameral. Chamber of Deputies or Majlis al-Nuwaab (189 seats; 5-year terms; 152 seats are elected by popular vote for party lists on a winner-take-all basis). An additional 37 seats (20% of the total) are distributed to opposition parties on a proportional basis as provided for in 1999 constitutional amendments. Elections last held October 24, 2004 (next to be held in October 2009). Election results: percentage of vote by party--RCD 92%; seats by party--RCD 152, MDS 14, PUP 11, UDU 7, At-Tajdid 3, PSL 2. Note: The opposition increased number of seats from 34 to 37. A referendum in 2002 created a second chamber, the Chamber of Advisors. Elections for the Chamber of Advisors were held in July 2005. Half of these members were up for re-election in August 2008. Some members were to be elected by municipal council members and members of the Chamber of Deputies; others were to be appointed by President Ben Ali.
Judicial--Nominally independent District Courts, Courts of Appeal, Highest Court (Cour de Cassation). Judges of all courts are appointed by the minister of justice and human rights.
Political parties: Democratic Constitutional Rally (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique--ruling party) or RCD, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali; At-Tajdid Movement (Ahmed Brahim); Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties or FDTL (Mustapha Ben Jaafar); Liberal Social Party or PSL (Mondher Thabet); Movement of Democratic Socialists or MDS (Ismail Boulahia); Popular Unity Party or PUP (Mohamed Bouchiha); Unionist Democratic Union or UDU (Ahmed Inoubli); Progressive Democratic Party or PDP (Maya Jribi); Green Party for Progress or PVP (Mongi Khamassi).
Political pressure groups and leaders: Authorized--Tunisian Human Rights League or LTDH (Mokhtar Trifi); Tunisian Association of Democratic Women or ATFD (Sana Ben Achour); Tunisian Bar Association (Adbessatar Ben Moussa); National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists or SNJT (Neji B’ghouri); General Union of Tunisian Students (Ezzedine Zaatour). Unauthorized --An-Nahdha (Renaissance) the Islamic fundamentalist party (Rached El Ghanouchi, in exile); National Council for Liberties in Tunisia or CNLT (Sihem Ben Sedrine); Freedom and Equity (Mohamed Nouri); National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (Abdelkader Ben Khemiss); Movement of 18 October (Nejib Chebbi, Hamma Hammami, et. al) Congress for the Republic or CPR (Moncef Marzouki); Tunisian Communist Labor Party or POCT (Hamma Hammami); Tunisian Green Party or PVT (Abdelkader Zitouni); International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners or AISPP (President: Saida Akremi).
Administrative divisions: 24 governorates--Ariana, Beja, Ben Arous, Bizerte, El Kef, Gabes, Gafsa, Jendouba, Kairouan, Kasserine, Kebili, Mahdia, Manouba, Medenine, Monastir, Nabeul, Sfax, Sidi Bou Zid, Siliana, Sousse, Tataouine, Tozeur, Tunis, Zaghouan.
Suffrage: Universal at 18. (Active duty members of the military and internal security forces cannot vote.)
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