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BACKGROUND NOTES: TUNISIA
PUBLISHED BY THE BUREAU OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Official Name: Republic of Tunisia
Area: 163,610 sq. km. (63,378 sq. mi.), slightly smaller
Cities: Capital--Tunis (pop. about
1 million). Other city--Sfax (500,000).
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 (1993): 8,530,000. Annual growth rate
Ethnic groups: Arab-Berber 98%, European 1%, other 1%.
Religions: Muslim 98%, Christian 1%, Jewish less than
Languages: Arabic (official), French.
Education: Years compulsory--9. Literacy--65%.
Health (1992): Infant mortality rate--38/1,000. Life
expectancy--67 years male, 70 years female.
Work force (2,500,000): Services--41%. Industry--34%.
Constitution: June 1, 1959.
Independence: March 20, 1956.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state and head
of government). Legislative--unicameral 163-member
Chamber of Deputies (popularly elected). Judicial--
independent. Judges of highest court are presidentially
Administrative Subdivisions: 23 governorates.
Political parties: Constitutional Democratic Party
(RCD), Movement of Democratic Socialists (MDS), Renewal
Movement (formerly the Communist Party), Socialist
Progressive Party (RSP), Popular Unity Party (PUP),
Democratic Unionist Party (UDU), Social Liberal Party
(PSP). Illegal parties--Renaissance Party (An-Nahda),
Tunisian Communist Workers' Party (POCT).
Suffrage: Universal at 20.
Flag: Red star on a red crescent in a white circle
centered on a red background.
GDP (1993): $12.2 billion.
Growth rate (1992): 8%.
Per capita GDP (1993): $1,438.
Natural resources: crude oil, phosphates, iron ore,
lead, zinc, salt.
Agriculture (21% of GDP): Products--olives, beets,
dates, oranges, almonds, grain, sugar.
Industry (20% of GDP): Types--petroleum, mining
(particularly phosphate and iron ore), tourism, textiles,
footwear, food processing, beverages.
Trade: Exports--$6.1 billion (1993): hydrocarbons,
agricultural products, phosphates, and chemicals. Major
markets--EU 77%, Middle East 9%, U.S. 1%, Turkey, and the
former Soviet Union. Imports--$6.7 billion (1993):
industrial goods and equipment, hydrocarbons, food,
consumer goods. Major suppliers--EU 71%, U.S. 5%,
Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Turkey, Algeria.
Official exchange rate (1994): 1 dinar=U.S.$1.
Tunisians are descendants of indigenous Berber and Arab
tribes that migrated to North Africa during the seventh
century. Recorded history in Tunisia begins with the
arrival of Phoenicians, who founded Carthage and other
North African settlements. Carthage was captured by the
Romans in AD 146, and the Romans continued to rule North
Africa until they were defeated by tribesmen from Europe
in the fifth century. The Muslim conquest in the seventh
century transformed North Africa. Tunisia became a
center of Arab culture until its assimilation into the
Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.
France established a protectorate in Tunisia in 1881.
The rise of nationalism led to Tunisia's independence in
1956. Independence leader Habib Bourguiba became
Tunisia's first president in 1956 and held the office
until 1987, when Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was elected.
Post-independence tensions between France and Tunisia
decreased in 1962 when France withdrew from its Bizerte
naval base. But when Tunisia nationalized foreign
interests in 1964, relations with France again suffered.
Cooperation with France improved in 1968, and France has
extended important economic credits and technical
assistance since then.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
The Tunisian republic was established in 1957 with
Bourguiba as President. Tunisia adopted a constitution
in June 1959. President Bourguiba ran unopposed and
legislative candidates met only token opposition in the
elections that followed. In October 1964, Bourguiba's
Neo-Destour Party was renamed the Destourian Socialist
Party (PSD). Bourguiba was named President-for-life in
1974 by a constitutional amendment. Opposition parties
were legalized in 1981, but the PSD maintained control of
all legislative seats until the 1994 elections. Ben Ali,
elected President in 1987, renamed the PSD the
Constitutional Democratic Party (RCD) in 1988. It
remains Tunisia's dominant political party.
In 1987, President Ben Ali initiated a democratization
process, released some political prisoners, and abolished
special state security courts. In 1988, he forged a
national pact which was signed by representatives of all
opposition forces, including the Islamists.
Tunisia's constitution was revised in 1988 to permit the
president to serve for three five-year terms.
Legislative elections are held every 5 years. The
president has full responsibility for determining
national policy. Presidential bills have priority before
the Chamber of Deputies. The president may govern by
decree when the Chamber is not in session. In the
presidentially appointed cabinet, the prime minister is
responsible for executive policy and succeeds the
president in case of death or disability.
Ben Ali held presidential and legislative elections from
1989 to 1991 but ran for president unopposed. In
elections for the Chamber of Deputies, candidates of the
illegal Islamist party An-Nahda garnered averages of 18%
of the vote in districts they contested as independents.
The government introduced modified proportional
representation for 1990 municipal elections, but
opposition parties boycotted the elections to protest RCD
control of the process. A 1990 firebomb attack on an RCD
party headquarters in the Bab Souika district of Tunis
sparked a harsh government crackdown on the Islamist
opposition. Thousands of An-Nahda members and
sympathizers were arrested for plotting to overthrow the
President. The 1992 military trials in which 265
Islamists were convicted and sentenced to prison terms of
one year to life were marked by defendants' allegations
of widespread torture and abuse by security officers.
Opposition parties were elected to Tunisia's Chamber of
Deputies for the first time in 1994 due to a new
electoral code which set aside 19 seats in the
legislature for opposition candidates elected by
proportional vote. In March 1994, President Ben Ali was
re-elected to another 5-year term, capturing 99.9% of the
Trade unions have played a key role in Tunisia's history
since the struggle for independence. The assassination
of Tunisian labor leader Ferhat Hached in 1952 was a
catalyst for the final push against the French. The
General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) had a decisive
political presence during the first two decades of the
republic. Bourguiba cracked down on the UGTT in 1978,
1984, and 1985. Despite a drop in union membership from
400,000 to about 250,000 as the structure of the Tunisian
economy changed, the UGTT continued to hold a prominent
place in Tunisia's political and social life.
Tunisia is a leader in the Arab world in the promotion of
equal status for women under the law. A Personal Status
Code was adopted shortly after independence in 1956
which, among other laws, prohibits polygamy. 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 Tunisia's birth rate to 1.9%.
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--Hamed Karoui
Minister of State--Abdallah Kallel
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Habib Ben Yahia
Minister of National Defense--Abdelaziz Ben Dhia
Ambassador to the United States--vacant
Tunisia's embassy in the United States is located at 1515
Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20005 (tel. 202-
862-1850, fax 202-862-1858).
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
Late in 1985, commodity prices and tourism revenues fell,
and harvests were poor. Workers' remittances fell when
Libya expelled 32,000 Tunisian workers. An overvalued
dinar and a growing foreign debt sparked a foreign
exchange crisis. In 1986, the government launched a
structural adjustment program to liberalize prices,
reduce tariffs, and reorient Tunisia toward a market
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 $9 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). The government also has
privatized about 32 state-owned enterprises.
Unemployment continues to plague Tunisia's economy and is
aggravated by a rapidly growing work force. An estimated
60% of the population is under the age of 25.
Officially, 16% of the Tunisian work force is unemployed,
but an estimated 50% of workers are unemployed or
In 1992, Tunisia reentered the private international
capital market for the first time in six years, securing
a $10-million line of credit for balance of payments
support. An emerging stock exchange offers investors
opportunities. Recent oil and natural gas discoveries
have put off until the 21st century Tunisia's becoming a
net energy importer. Still, difficult economic reforms
need to be made, including further reductions in tariffs
The Tunisian Government adopted a unified investment code
in 1993 to attract foreign capital. More than 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 seeks continued preferential
trade agreements with European countries. In 1993,
Tunisia made the dinar convertible for trade
President Bourguiba took a non-aligned stance but
emphasized close relations with Europe and the United
States. President Ben Ali aims to increase relations
with Arab and African nations while maintaining those
with the West.
Tunisia served as the headquarters of the Arab League
from 1979 to 1990 and has hosted the Palestine Liberation
Organization's (PLO) headquarters since 1982. Since the
signing of the Israeli-PLO Accord in September 1993, the
PLO Executive Committee has relocated to Jericho while
the 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. Israeli citizens of Tunisian descent may
travel to Tunisia on their Israeli passport.
Wedged between Algeria and Libya, Tunisia has had
strained relations at times with its neighbors. Tunisia
and Algeria resolved a long-standing border dispute in
1993 and have cooperated in the construction of a natural
gas pipeline through Tunisia that connects Algeria to
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 but
restored in 1977. Relations 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 but continue to be strained.
Tunisia has supported the development of the Arab Maghreb
Union (UMA) along with Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and
Libya. But progress on Maghreb integration has been
stymied because of the political instability in Algeria
and Libya's differences with the U.S. and Europe over its
support for terrorism.
The United States has maintained official representation
in Tunis almost continuously since 1797. The first
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. Aid has totaled more than $1.5 billion
since then. Recently, it has primarily been used in
support of Tunisia's conversion to a market-oriented
economy. Assistance has been provided through the U.S.
Agency for International Development (USAID) and the
Agriculture Department's commodity credit programs and
PL-480 (Food for Peace).
The U.S. Government also responded rapidly with natural
disaster relief following severe flooding in 1982 and
1990 and a locust plague in 1988. The Peace Corps has
been active in Tunisia since 1961. The program's 75
volunteers focus on rural and urban development,
vocational education, and public health. 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.
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 environmental and tourism sectors.
Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Mary Ann Casey
Deputy Chief of Mission--Carol K. Stocker
Political Officer--Andrea M. Farsakh
Economic Officer--David J. Peashock
Commercial Officer--Paul C. O'Friel
The U.S. Embassy in Tunisia is located at 144 Ave. de la
Liberte, 1002 Tunis-Belvedere (tel. 011-216-1-782-566,
fax 011-216-1-789719). The U.S. Information Service
(USIS) offices are located at 14 Rue Yahia Ibn Omar, 1002
Tunis-Belvedere (tel. 011-216-1-789800).
Customs and currency: Visas are not required of U.S.
tourists visiting the country for up to four months.
Firearms are carefully controlled, but there are no
unusual customs restrictions. Tunisian dinars may not be
imported or exported, but foreign currency, including
dollars, may be imported; departing travelers may take
out the amounts they brought in and any other foreign
currency certified to have been legally acquired in
Health: Tunisia has no particular health hazards, but
tapwater is not potable in certain seasons in Tunis.
Adequate medical care is available in the capital and in
other major cities.
Published by the United States Department of State --
Bureau of Public Affairs -- Office of Public
Communication -- Washington, DC July 1994 -- Managing
Editor: Peter A. Knecht -- Editor: Peter Freeman
Department of State Publication 8142 -- Background Notes
Series. For sale by the Superintendent of Documents,
U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402.
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