After the modern Tunisian Republic was founded in 1956, Habib Bourguiba, known as the father of the nation, tempered the influence of religion, pushed for women’s rights in the Personal Status Code and created secular, coeducational and bilingual schools, making Tunisia a leading modern example regionally.
Building on these foundations, following the 2011 Jasmine Revolution Tunisia rose to become a leading example of a successful post-Arab Spring democracy. Today, Tunisia is among the most liberal and free countries in the Arab world, boasting regular and reliable elections, multiple political parties and respect for the rule of law. The press benefits from liberty of expression, and in 2017 the country became the first Arab country to have an LGBTQ radio station.
In many other respects 2017 was a historic year for Tunisia, as it was in particular for women’s rights, with Parliament approving a landmark law on violence against women in June.
Also, Tunisia abolished the long-standing ban of Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men. There was also a call for equal inheritance laws between men and women, to be included in several reforms that have been postponed until after the May 2018 municipal elections.
These laws have shined a positive light on Tunisia compared to other countries in the region. Further reforms will shape how the country positions itself on the regional and global stage in the years to come.
Tunisia has a rich, 4000-year-old history with Berber tribes being the first recorded inhabitants. The Phoenicians, originating from the eastern Mediterranean coast, started immigrating there in the 12th century BCE and founded the city of Carthage in the 9th century BCE. Legendary history attributes the founding of Carthage to Queen Elissa, also known as Dido. Phoenician rule lasted for more than 600 years until the Punic Wars from 264 BCE to 146 BCE led to the takeover of Carthage by the Romans, whose rule then lasted until the 5th century CE. Following the fall of the Roman Empire, Tunisia was invaded by Vandals and then re-taken by the Byzantine Empire. In the 7th century, Tunisia was conquered by the Arabs and saw the establishment of various dynasties, including the Umayyads, Aghlabids, Fatimids, Zirids and Hafsids.
What is now Tunisia was later assimilated into the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century until it became a French protectorate in 1881. The country gained independence from France in 1956 and established a constitution modelled on the French system. Tunisia remained under the leadership of President Bourguiba until 1987 when Zine El Abidine Ben Ali came into power. Ben Ali held four terms in office and was overthrown in 2011 during the Jasmine Revolution, which sparked the Arab Spring.
Following the Tunisian revolution, the country successfully transitioned into a democracy and adopted a new constitution in January 2014.
Population & Demographics
Tunisia has a small, principally homogeneous population, emerging from a diverse background of civilisations. It has seen a plethora of cultures pass through its borders over the centuries, which makes the modern population a mixture of Mediterranean, Arab, Ottoman and Berber, to name but a handful.
Tunisia’s population was 11.6m people, according to the latest World Bank estimates from 2016. Tunisia is not densely populated, with 73.4 people per sq metre and 67% of the population living in urban areas. In fact, the majority of the population is concentrated in the northern half of the country and the capital Tunis is the largest city with over 1m people, followed by Sfax with more than 970,000 people. The annual population growth rate is 1.1% per year as a result of family planning policies and reproductive health services that have been in place since the 1960s. Abortion has been legal since 1965, which makes it the only Arab country to authorise it.
The average age in the country is 31.4 years and 38% of the population is under 25 years old, representing a considerable portion of the population that will soon participate in the labour market. This presents a notable challenge for the government as youth unemployment was already a staggering 35.2% in 2017, according to World Bank estimates, which is even higher than at the time of the 2011 revolution when it registered 30%.
Unemployment in Tunisia disproportionately affects the youth cohort: another alarming trend is that 29.9% of university graduates are unemployed. Although this figure is down from 31.6% in 2016, more effective integration into the labour market is a key political priority. In fact, unemployed graduates in Tunisia were highly visible during the Arab Spring and also to a certain extent in the protests that occurred in January 2018.
Language & Religion
Although the official language of the country is Arabic, the vast majority of the population speaks Tunisian Arabic, a dialect also known as Derja. The morphology, syntax, pronunciation and vocabulary of the local dialect are considerably different from modern standard Arabic or classical Arabic, to such an extent that the different dialects are not mutually intelligible.
Furthermore, just under 60% of the population speaks French, according to the International Organisation of La Francophonie, and was introduced into the public education system during the establishment of the protectorate. Although there has been an Arabisation process in recent years, it continues to be widely used in the business community, academia, and the fields of natural science and medicine. In addition, the Berber language is still spoken in a number of pockets around the country.
Given its rich history, Tunisia has seen various religions pass through its territory, including Roman mythology, Catholicism and Islam, which is the main religion at present. Over 99% of the total population are Sunni Muslim. The second-largest religious group today is the Christian community which numbers 25,000 and is composed of Berber residents as well as French, Italian and Maltese descendants. Additionally, there are about 5000 Catholics in the country. Judaism is the third-largest religion with 1500 people, concentrated on the island of Djerba that has a renowned Jewish quarter dating back 2500 years.
Although the Tunisian constitution guarantees freedom of worship, Islam is the official state religion and it is compulsory for the president to be Muslim. Contrary to many Arab states, however, in Tunisia there is no penalty for apostasy, or leaving Islam, although societal pressure against leaving the religion is still fairly widespread.
Geography & Climate
Tunisia is the smallest country in North Africa with an area of 163,610 sq km and is also the northernmost country in Africa. It borders Algeria to the west, Libya to the south and east, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north. With over 1000 km of coastline, it has a strong tradition of commerce and openness to the wider Mediterranean region. The country also holds a strategic position as a bridge between Europe and Africa.
The country’s varied landscape and climate contributes to its rich economic diversity, dominated by the Atlas Mountains in the north, dry plains in the centre and the Sahara desert in the south. Tunisia also has a fertile coastal plain called the Sahel along its eastern Mediterranean coast, an area famous for olives. The north of the country is mainly temperate and has mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers with average temperatures of 12˚C in winter and 30˚C in summer. In the south, the climate is hot and arid.
Almost two-thirds of the country’s land, primarily in the north, is put to agricultural use. Of this area 31.1% is used for pasture, 18.3% is arable land and 15.4% for crop cultivation. Approximately 4000 sq km of land is irrigated in Tunisia.
In terms of natural resources, Tunisia possesses petroleum, phosphates, iron ore, lead, zinc and salt. Historically, the principal mineral resource of the country has been phosphate, of which one-third is exported and the remainder used by domestic chemical industries. Fertilisers are also exported once converted. However, since the 2011 revolution the phosphate sector in Tunisia has been suffering as a result of a number of social issues and protests halting production.
Although oil deposits in Tunisia are significantly smaller than those of its neighbours, Libya and Algeria, petroleum is currently Tunisia’s most important natural resource in terms of contribution to GDP. Petroleum was discovered in 1964 at Al Burmah field. In the early 1990s Tunisia’s petroleum reserves were estimated to be sufficient to maintain the country’s low rate of extraction for several decades, but due to rising domestic consumption, inadequate refinement facilities, and social protest surrounding oil fields, Tunisia is now a net importer of petroleum products.
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