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Tunisia - People

In 2010 it was estimated that Tunisia's population totaled 10,589,025. Based upon projections from the 1984 census that counted over 6.9 million Tunisians, this figure indicates that the population had nearly doubled twenty-five years, and nearly trippled in the three decades since 3.8 million were counted at the time of independence.

Modern-day Tunisians are a mixture of Berber and Arab stock. The Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa, have no generic name for themselves. The Romans called them barbari, or "barbarians," the term applied to those peoples who lived outside the framework of Greco-Roman civilization and from which the designation Berber probably comes. Of stocky physique and having a high incidence of light hair and blue eyes, the Berbers are Caucasians akin to other Mediterranean peoples.

The Arab component of the society was introduced during the conquests of the seventh, the eleventh, and succeeding centuries. Racially, the Arabs brought a slender build, dark eyes and hair, and darker skin to the community from which most modern Tunisians are descended. The Berbers quickly accepted the religion, language, and culture of the invaders and intermarried with them. In modern times most Tunisians claim Arab ancestry, speak Arabic, profess Islam, and find only traces of Berber culture in their lives.

At an early date Tunisia became divided into two cultural regions, and the distinction between these two can still be readily observed. The first one consists roughly of the cities and the coastal rural zone, including the Sahil, and the second one encompasses the rural interior. The differences between these two regions correspond generally to the historical division between settled life and nomadism; and their roots go back to pre-Arab times when Berbers settled in the ancient cities under the suzerainty of Carthaginians or Romans.

In the more remote localities, values associated with tribal life have tended to survive. In the past the people of nomadic tribes were highly individualistic, and tribal and family loyalties were considered values of the highest order. Raids and counterraids were frequent. Tribal warfare was suppressed by the French, and over the years a majority of the nomads either became sedentary farmers or migrated to the cities. Values associated with tribal organization have persisted, however, and probably have contributed to the strong resistance encountered by the government in its efforts to aid landless farmers and to introduce modern farming techniques.

According to one estimate, one-third of the population at independence was clearly in the modern sector, which could be found almost entirely in the cities and larger towns and in the Sahil. Another one-third was transitional, moving out of the traditional stage and consisting principally of urban migrants. The remaining one-third, including the rural population of central and southern Tunisia, remained almost untouched by the modernizing social and economic forces that were changing the rest of the society.

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.

The decade from 1956 to 1966 witnessed a great expansion of the Tunisian middle class. This was an era of unprecedented social mobility, brought about by the departure of the French, Italian, and Jewish foreign communities. Because these groups had monopolized most important positions in business, commerce, and government, their departure opened up immense opportunities. In the first few years after independence, Tunisians scrambled to fill tens of thousands of jobs vacated by Europeans.

Over 40 percent of the population were under the age of 25 and posed a challenge to the government in terms of their impact on housing, education, and employment. Many young people found themselves without employment or the opportunity for social advancement and had become frustrated and resentful of the wealth and status of the middle class. They were also questioning the value of the elite's modernization policies. These discontented youth, particularly the educated among them, were instead finding in Islam and Tunisian identity an alternative to the West European-inspired values of the upper classes.

A vast generational gulf separates those under 25 years of age from the generation over 40 years of age. This split had its roots in contemporary demographic reality: more than one of every two Tunisians was under the age of 20. As with the regional dichotomy between the interior and the coast, this generational division was of enormous economic and political significance. From the point of view of the young, the age-group from 40 to 60 controlled the government and the economic life of the country and monopolized nearly all desirable positions associated therewith. While new positions were being created, they were far too few to satisfy the demands and expectations of those newly arrived on the employment scene. As a result, approximately one half of the population - overwhelmingly young, often educated, and aspiring to careers in statecraft, business, and commerce - saw itself as excluded from any meaningful role in the country for the indefinite future. Those under 25 increasingly seemed to have little in common with their elders.

High by any standard and characteristic of all agegroups and locales, unemployment and underemployment fell especially hard on young people and the poorly educated, running at rates of 20 percent and more among these groups. In many cases the young and the unemployed had despaired of ever finding satisfactory occupations. They survived on the margins of a society that often appeared not to care about them or their welfare, eking out a meager living incommensurate with their hopes, expectations, and education and resentful of the wealth and success of the middle classes and the elite.

An enormous gap in income existed between the elite and the middle classes on the one hand and the lower classes and the unemployed on the other. The general consensus since the mid-1980s was that both the differential in incomes and the level of poverty continued to grow. This disparity was well established at the time of independence, but it widened measurably during the 1970s when government-sponsored economic reforms caused an expansion of the middle class and fostered the emergence of a new class of small-scale entrepreneurs and business peopie. Wealthy upper-class Tunisians benefited disproportionately from public and private sector employment and government spending programs, and they were often accused of corruption, dodging taxation, using their positions for personal enrichment, and obstructing reforms. The gap in income and wealth between them and the poorer segment of the population played a major role in fomenting the violence that convulsed Tunisia in 1978 and again in 1984.



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