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Tunisia - Introduction

Tunisia has an area of 63,170 square miles and a population in 2010 of 10.5 million. Tunisia forms part of the region that its early Arab conquerors called the "island of the west" (jazirat al maghrib)- the land between the "sea of sand" (the Sahara) and the Mediterranean Sea. According to tradition, other regional members are Morocco, Algeria, and the northwest portion of Libya known as Tripolitania, but in more recent times Mauritania has often been included. Tunisia has stood throughout history as a bridge between this Arab west (the Maghrib) and the Arab east (the Mashriq). Jutting into the Mediterranean midway between Gibraltar and the Suez, the country's northeastern promontory commands the narrows between the African continent and Sicily that divide the great intercontinental sea into eastern and western basins. From this strategic location Tunisia has been depicted by its promoters as an important crossroads between Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

Smallest of the Maghribi nations, Tunisia is roughly the size of the state of Missouri. Bounded on the north and the east by an extensive coastline, the small country shares its other frontiers with much larger Algeria and troublesome Libya. Tunisians and their Maghribi neighbors have a common language, religion, and cultural heritage and, in large measure, a common history as well. The area has been a locus of trade and colonization almost since the beginfling of recorded time. Its people are ethnically a mixture of Arab and indigenous Berber stock, but succeeding waves of Carthaginians, Romans, Spanish Muslims, Ottoman Turks, and-more recently-French and Italian settlers have had a profound effect on cultures, social structures, and values. Independent since 1956 after 75 years as a French protectorate, Tunisia is regarded not only as the most modernized of the Arab countries but also as the most Westernized.

By the end of 2010 Tunisia had big problems. President Ben Ali was aging, his regime was sclerotic and there was no clear successor. Many Tunisians were frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities. Extremism posed a continuing threat. Compounding the problems, the Government brooked no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Instead, it sought to impose ever greater control, often using the police. Major change in Tunisia would have to wait for Ben Ali's departure, which came in the opening days of 2011.

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.

Since independence, Tunisia deserves credit for its economic and social progress. Without the natural resources of its neighbors, Tunisia focused on people and diversified its economy. In a success all too rare, the Government of Tunisia is effective in delivering services (education, health care, infrastructure and security) to its people. The Government of Tunisia has sought to build a "knowledge economy" to attract FDI that will create high value-added jobs. As a result, the country has enjoyed five percent real GDP growth for the past decade. On women's rights, Tunisia is a model. And, Tunisia has a long history of religious tolerance, as demonstrated by its treatment of its Jewish community. While significant challenges remain (above all the country's 14 percent unemployment rate) on balance Tunisia has done better than most in the region.

Despite Tunisia's economic and social progress, its record on political freedoms is poor. Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems. The Government of Tunisia can point to some political progress in the last decade, including an end to prior review of books and ICRC access to many prisons. But for every step forward there has been another back, for example the recent takeover of important private media outlets by individuals close to President Ben Ali.

The problem was clear: Tunisia had been ruled by the same president for 23 years. He had no successor. And, while President Ben Ali deserved credit for continuing many of the progressive policies of President Bourguiba, he and his regime had lost touch with the Tunisian people. They tolerated no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Increasingly, they relied on the police for control and focus on preserving power. And, corruption in the inner circle was growing. Even average Tunisians were keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints was rising. Tunisians intensely disliked, even hated, First Lady Leila Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mocked her; even those close to the government expressed dismay at her reported behavior. Meanwhile, anger was growing at Tunisia's high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime's long-term stability were increasing.



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