Home of the ancient city of Carthage, present-day Tunisia has a long and distinguished history. Its location at the centre of North Africa, close to vital shipping routes in the Mediterranean, ensured it became a hub for control over the region for successive ruling elites, including the Berbers, Phoenicians, Romans, and Arab and Ottoman dynasties. In the late 19th century Tunisia became a French protectorate, a status it maintained until French colonial rule ended in 1956, and the country achieved full independence.
The post-independence republican period was dominated first by Habib Bourgiba, who ruled for three decades (1956-87), advancing secular ideals, in particular the emancipation of women. Bourgiba’s successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, assumed power in 1987, establishing an authoritarian rule that would stay in place until a wave of anti-government protests forced Ben Ali into exile in January 2011.
The start of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution had a widespread impact, igniting the region-wide movement now known as the Arab Spring. Though at times rocky, Tunisia’s road to democracy has been generally deemed a success, and the country is often hailed as a beacon of hope in a turbulent region.
Established in 2011, Tunisia’s unicameral legislative branch comprises a 217-seat National Constituent Assembly (Assemblée des Représentants du Peuple, ARP). Members are elected for a five-year term through proportional representation in multi-seat constituencies. An ARP majority voted in favour of a new Constitution in January 2014, establishing a semi-presidential system and paving the way for legislative elections in October, and a two-round presidential election in November and December of the same year. The next round of elections is scheduled for 2019.
Current President Béji Caïd Essebsi, founder of the secularist Nidaa Tounes party, was elected in December 2014 with 55.7% of the vote. As head of state, the president is elected to a five-year term by an absolute majority of the popular vote. As such, presidential elections may be held over two rounds if necessary. The president is limited to serving two successive or separate terms.
The president shares executive authority with and appoints the prime minister, also known as the head of government. Current Prime Minister Youssef Chahed was appointed to the role in August 2016 to lead a new national unity government, after the previous government was ousted following the country’s first-ever vote of no confidence. Composed of a broad coalition base, the new national unity government is based on a power-sharing arrangement that is primarily between the two most dominant parties in the ARP: the secularist Nidaa Tounes party and the moderate Islamist party Al Nahda (or Ennahda).
A nation wedged between two far larger North African countries – Algeria on the west and Libya in the south-east – Tunisia is a modestly sized 163,000 sq km and features more than 1000 km of Mediterranean coastline.
The country’s varied landscape shapes its life and economy. The north of the country is dominated by the Atlas Mountains, which extend north-east from the Algerian border to the Mediterranean Sea. Here, a Mediterranean climate is prevalent throughout the year, with four seasons, including hot summers and mild rainy winters. Temperatures average 12°C in winter and 30°C in summer, making the north suitable for agricultural activity and ideal for tourism. The dry central plains are abutted in the south by arid desert that marks the beginnings of the Sahara. The south receives little rainfall – about 150 mm of rain annually – and temperatures can reach as high as 45°C during the summer months, offering few prospects for agricultural development.
Close to two-thirds (64.8%) of the country’s land is put to agricultural use, primarily in the north. A significant portion of this is used for permanent pasture (31.1%), while 18.3% of land is arable and 15.4% is under permanent crop cultivation. Tunisia is a leading exporter of olive oil and an important producer of olives, grain, tomatoes, citrus fruit, beef and dairy products, among others. Agricultural activity accounts for some 10% of Tunisia’s GDP.
According to Tunisia’s National Institute of Statistics (Institut National de la Statistique, INS), the country’s population reached 11.15m in 2015. As is the case in the wider Middle East, Tunisia’s population features a significant youth bulge and a large working-age group. Tunisians between the ages of 24 and 54 comprise the largest cohort, representing 44.5% of the population, while a further 38% of the population is under 25. A much smaller percentage (17%) is 55 and older.
In the short term, the country’s demographic dividend poses a significant challenge for the government. The large youth and working-age segments in the country have placed increasing pressure on the labour market and education system. The country’s unemployment rate stood at 15.5% in the third quarter of 2016, according to the INS, and affects the youth cohort disproportionately. According to a 2015 report by the OECD, roughly two out of every five young Tunisians are unemployed, while one in four are neither employed nor enrolled in education or training. More effective integration of the population into the labour market is now viewed as a political priority and a necessary step for social stability.
In the longer term, however, the country’s fertility rate – estimated at just below the replacement rate at 1.99 in 2015 – is very likely to lead to a reduction in future youth cohorts. The population growth rate stood at 0.89% the same year, well below much of the developing world, while life expectancy at birth is estimated to be 75 years.
The majority of Tunisia’s population is concentrated in the northern half of the country, with the capital Tunis, the largest population centre, being home to nearly 2m inhabitants. Tunisia has experienced gradual urbanisation at an estimated annual rate of 1.4% between 2010 and 2015. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, in 2015, 66.8% of the population resided in urban centres, while the remaining 33.2% of people were dispersed among the country’s more rural areas.
Language & Religion
Tunisia’s official language is Arabic, though French is commonly used in business and commercial settings, and is spoken by some twothirds of the overall population. Berber dialects are also spoken throughout the country, especially in the south. The country is vastly ethnically and religiously homogeneous; a majority of the population is Arab (98%) and Sunni Muslim (over 99%). However, the country is also home to a small number of Christian, Jewish, Shia Muslim and Baha’i populations.
Though its hydrocarbons reserves pale in comparison to those of its neighbours, Algeria and Libya, Tunisia is nonetheless a resource-rich country, boasting hydrocarbons, minerals as well as metal reserves. According to BP’s “Statistical Review of World Energy 2016”, Tunisia had a total of 400m barrels of proven oil reserves as of 2015, giving the country a reserves-to-production ratio of around 18.6 years.
Oil production in the country reached 63,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2015, up from 53,000 bpd the previous year. Natural gas production, meanwhile, stood at 1.66bn cu metres in 2014. The country’s proven natural gas reserves are estimated at 65.13bn cu metres. Though strikes and productivity losses negatively impacted hydrocarbons production in 2016, recent discoveries suggest Tunisia could hold significant untapped potential.
In May 2015 oil and gas exploration company Mazarine Energy discovered a new oil-bearing reservoir in its Zaafrane permit in central Tunisia. At the initial well, it drew oil at a rate of 4300 bpd. In September 2016 Italian energy company Eni announced it had discovered a new oil field near the southern town of Tataouine that had the potential to produce up to 2000 bpd. In addition to conventional oil, there are shale formations in the south of the country made up of an estimated 23trn cu feet of technically recoverable shale gas in addition to some 1.5bn barrels of technically recoverable oil, according to the US Energy Information Administration (see Energy chapter).
Along with hydrocarbons, Tunisia has a very diverse range of mineral and metal reserves, including lead, iron ore, phosphate and zinc. Accounting for approximately 10% of GDP, mining is an extremely important economic activity for the country. Though phosphate production declined significantly – from 8.26m tonnes in 2010 to around 4m tonnes by 2015 – according to what was then the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Mines, the country nonetheless remains a highly significant producer of phosphate products, with an estimated 100m tonnes of reserves.
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