|Originally Posted: 2/24/2008|
Tunisia is the third country in our online journey. Earlier our journey took us to Morocco and Algeria.
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 millennia. 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 and the make-up of its population, with subsequent waves of migration from around the Arab and Ottoman world, including significant numbers of Spanish Muslims 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.
Tunisia is the smallest nation in North Africa. 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 in a bloodless coup. Bourguiba had been 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. 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.
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. A May 2002 referendum approved constitutional changes proposed by Ben Ali that allowed him to run for a fourth term in 2004 (and a fifth, his final, because of age limits on presidential candidates, in 2009), and provided judicial immunity during and after his presidency. The referendum also created a second parliamentary chamber, the Chamber of Advisors, and provided for other changes.
Despite the Government of Tunisia's stated committed 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 145 out of 169 countries in the 2007 Reporters Without Borders list of World Press Freedom rankings. As reflected in the State Department's annual human rights report, there are frequent reports of widespread torture and abuse of prisoners, especially political prisoners.
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. 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.