The Free Report: Tunisia 2016
Promise and potential
By Serrai Invest Capital Ltd (Media Team)
Transitioning to democracy
With a 1290-km coastline stretching along the Mediterranean, Tunisia occupies a strategic location between the Northern tip of the African continent and Europe. Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, is located on the eastern seaboard while the country’s northernmost point, Cap Bon, separates it by a mere 140 km from the Italian island of Sicily. While the country is bordered by Libya to the south-east and Algeria to the west, Tunisia is the smallest country in the Maghreb, at 163,610 sq km. Nonetheless, its geographical position has exposed it to a number of historic and economic transformations in the region. The country bears the imprint of cultures as diverse as the Phoenicians, Romans, Carthaginians, Arabs and Ottomans.
According to the latest census conducted in 2014, Tunisia’s population totalled 10.98m people, up from 4m in 1960. For the first time since the country’s independence in 1956, the number of women (50.2%) has exceeded the number of men (49.8%). The population’s average age has increased from 27.2 in 1994 to 32.4. Tunisians under 14 years of age account for 14.9% of the population while 11.7% of the population is over 60 years of age. Urban areas take in about two-thirds of the population, 2.6m of which live in Tunis. Tunisia’s population is ethnically homogeneous with around 97% of the population of Arab-Berber descent and the remaining 3% of Tunisians having European ancestry. However, the Roman, Arab, Spanish Muslim and Ottoman Turk, as well as the more recent Italian and French, influences are clearly visible in the country’s varied heritage.
GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE
Tunisia is composed of four quite distinct geographical zones. The Sahel, which extends through the northern and eastern areas of the country, is considered to be Tunisia’s breadbasket, due to its rich agricultural lands watered by Mediterranean storms and the country’s only permanent river, the Medjerda. Further inland is the central region of the Tell, which serves as the easternmost part of the Atlas Mountains. The Grand Erg Oriental is the southernmost part of country and is a large desert that merges into the Sahara. Sandwiched between the Tell and the Erg is the fourth region, essentially made up of chotts, or depressions, in which salt lakes form after the seasonal rains. The country has a typically Mediterranean climate along the Sahel, with hot dry summers and short winters with abundant rainfall. In the south, towards the Erg, there are higher temperatures and lower amounts of rainfall.
Wedged between oil-rich Libya and Algeria, it is sometimes easy to dismiss Tunisia as lacking in resources. But the North African country boasts a diversified array of energy, mineral and agricultural resources. Despite not having the massive oil fields that are common to both its neighbours, Tunisia does have a considerable amount of gas reserves, which have been essential in reducing the North African country’s dependence on energy imports. The country is an active exporter of iron phosphate and has become a leading exporter of olive and date products.
The country’s official language is Modern Standard Arabic, used in all official communications by the government as well as by the country’s educational system. Nonetheless, the Tunisian dialect, which differs slightly from Modern Standard Arabic and belongs to the Maghreb family, is widely used in informal situations. French is currently spoken by the vast majority of Tunisians, due to Tunisia’s history as a protectorate of France. As a consequence of Tunisia’s increasing integration into the world economy, English is gaining in currency as a business language, and Italian is also becoming prevalent, due to geographical proximity and tourism.
EDUCATION & EMPLOYMENT
Education in Tunisia is compulsory between 6 and 16 years of age. In 2014 the enrolment rate for children aged 6 to 14 stood at 95.8%. Once touted as one of the most advanced educational systems in the North African region, the sector has come under a great deal of criticism in recent years as the need for reform and adequate infrastructure, particularly at the primary and secondary levels, become pressing. An estimated 81.2% of Tunisians over 10 years of age are literate. Significant strides have been achieved in this area, with the illiteracy rates for women dropping from 96% in 1956 to 25% in 2014, while the rate for men declined from 74.5% to 12.4% during that same period. Nonetheless, a gender discrepancy remains, with illiteracy rates amongst women in most governorates at least twice as high as that of men. The public education system remains the main provider although an increasing number of private educational institutions have appeared in recent years. The post-secondary system has an array of institutions catering to specific sectors, including business and technology. Despite these improvements, the overall unemployment rate remains high, at 15.3% according to the World Bank, signifying a gap between the course offering by Tunisian universities and the country’s job market demands. In trying to combat this, the government has increased the availability of vocational training programmes and also developed an internship programme to ease graduate entrance into the job market.
STATUS OF WOMEN
Tunisia has always underlined a special dedication to women’s rights. This special standing was established following independence, when Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, took a number of measures to increase women’s liberties and participation in the civil society. Polygamy was banned, the right to request divorce was granted and veil usage was limited. The country’s constitution, adopted in January 2014 and considered one the most progressive in the Arab and Muslim world, devotes particular attention to women’s rights and promotes gender equality. Women represented 28.6% of the working population in 2014. Nonetheless, major disparities between genders remain in terms of economic discrepancy and disproportionate property rights legislation.
Approximately 98% of Tunisians are Sunni Muslim, the country’s official religion, with the remainder made up of Christian and Jewish minorities. The country boasts several sacred sites, including the world’s oldest minaret and North Africa’s oldest mosque, at Kairouan. The city’s well is also sacred and said to be directly connected to the well of Zamzam, at the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Although the country is characterised by strong Islamic values, religious practices are normally more relaxed than in other Muslim countries: alcohol is easily procured and the importance given to Islamic rituals varies among the population.
Between 1881 and 1956, Tunisia was a protectorate of France. After independence from its European rulers, a constitutional democratic republic was established. The political structure is shared between the president as head of state, the prime minister as head of government, a parliamentary chamber and a judicial system. Two presidents had served Tunisia before the 2011 revolution. Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president led the country from independence until 1987. He was then succeeded by president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ousted in 2011 after a popular revolt had forced him into exile. Tunisia has since secured a relatively successful transition. The country’s first free elections were held in October 2011 in which the public voted in a 217-member constituent assembly. Led by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda – before handing power to a technocratic government – the coalition was in charge of drafting the country’s new constitution. Adopted in early 2014, the constitution is considered one of the most progressive in the Arab and Muslim world and was well received by the international community. Parliamentary elections ensued in October 2014, giving victory to secularist Nidaa Tounes, who won 85 seats out of 217, against 69 for Ennahda. Presidential elections were held a month later and Beji Caid Essebsi, founding leader of Nidaa Tounes, won against his rival, Moncef Marzouki, who had served as interim president since 2011.