Official country name: Republic of Tunisia
Area: 63,170 sq miles (163,610 sq km)
Population: 10.2 million (2007 est.)
Median age: 28.3
Ethnic Groups: Arab 98 percent, Jewish and European 2 percent
GDP and GDP per capita: $29.7 billion and $2,904 (2006 estimates)
Government and Politics:
Tunisia is an odd, secular dictatorship. Its president is elected by popular vote to five-year terms. But the president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and his ruling party, also choose their opponents, vet their campaign platforms, regulate their campaign posters and messages, and limit the election season to about two weeks. Ben Ali, in power since 1987, ends up winning 95 to 99 percent of the vote. The legislature, similarly controlled, consists of a 189-member Chamber of Deputies (popularly elected) and a senate-like, mostly appointed 126-member Chamber of Advisers.
Islam is the constitutionally recognized state religion, but other religions are free to practice and worship in Tunisia. The country’s Muslims are overwhelmingly Sunni, with a small community of Sufis. There are about 1,500 Jews in Tunisia, making it the nation’s second-largest indigenous religion. Tunisia also has small communities o Christians. The constitution forbids religiously based political parties. An Islamist political movement was crushed two decades ago. Some Islamists remain in prison.
Tunisia has few natural resources, but it is among the more stable, prosperous nations of the Middle East, with a high rate of home ownership, literacy and foreign investment, a large middle class and a poverty rate at around 4 percent. The economy grew by more than 6 percent in 2007 on the strength of agriculture (and agriculture exports), tourism and mining (Tunisia produces about 80,000 barrels of oil per day).
According to Tel Aviv University researchers
, Tunisia’s military numbers 35,000 soldiers, 139 tanks, 18 combat aircraft, 15 combat vessels, and 83 missile launchers. In 2006, Tunisia received
$10.285 million in U.S. aid, most of it for military or for counter-terrorism.
Human Rights, Civil Rights and Media:
A New York Times editorial summed up Tunisia’s media and human rights situation in 2004
: “Mr. ben Ali's record on human rights and democracy is poor even by the standards of the Middle East. No serious political opposition is allowed, no critical coverage appears in the mass media, and hundreds of Tunisians remain jailed after unfair trials. Such arbitrary practices warrant condemnation anywhere, but are doubly deplorable in Tunisia, a relatively developed country that enacted pioneering protections of women's rights decades ago.” Little has changed since.
Tunisians owe their first mark on history to the Phoenician founders of Carthage, near present-day Tunis, around 814 B.C. The Carthaginian empire dominated the Mediterranean for more than half a century. The Romans and Byzantines followed until indigenous dynasties — the Aghlabid, the Fatimids, the Zirids and the Hafsids — ruled before Ottoman-influenced military hierarchies took over. The French invaded in 1881 and stayed until Tunisian independence in 1956. Tunisia dabbled in Arab-unity movements in the 1970s and Islamism in the 1980s until the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali imposed authoritarian rule in 1987.
Despite appearances to the contrary, Tunisia is one-party state where political authoritarianism is the price Tunisians pay for relative calm and prosperity. Unlike most other Arab nations, Tunisia has been instrumental in mediating talks between Israelis and Palestinians. It was also Tunisia that took in about 6,000 Palestine Liberation organization guerillas, including PLO Chairman Yaser Arafat, when the PLO was forced out of Lebanon by Israel in 1982.