U.S. Department of State Background Note
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PEOPLE AND HISTORY
Modern Tunisians are the descendents of indigenous Berbers and of people from numerous civilizations that have invaded, migrated to, and been assimilated into the population over the millennia. Recorded history in Tunisia begins with the arrival of Phoenicians, who founded Carthage and other North African settlements in the 8th century B.C. Carthage became a major sea power, clashing with Rome for control of the Mediterranean until it was defeated and captured by the Romans in 146 B.C. The Romans ruled and settled in North Africa until the 5th century, when the Roman Empire fell and Tunisia was invaded by European tribes, including the Vandals. The Muslim conquest in the 7th century transformed Tunisia and the make-up of its population, with subsequent waves of migration from around the Arab and Ottoman world, including significant numbers of Spanish Muslims and Jews at the end of the 15th century. Tunisia became a center of Arab culture and learning and was assimilated into the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. It was a French protectorate from 1881 until independence in 1956, and retains close political, economic, and cultural ties with France.
Nearly all Tunisians (98% of the population) are Muslim. There has been a Jewish population on the southern island of Djerba for 2000 years, and there remains a small Jewish population in Tunis and other cities, which is mainly descended from those who fled Spain in the late 15th century. A small Christian community is dispersed throughout the country, and includes foreign residents, as well as a few hundred native-born citizens who have converted to Christianity. Small nomadic indigenous minorities have been mostly assimilated into the larger population.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
Tunisia is a republic with a strong presidential system dominated by a single political party. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been in office since 1987, when he deposed Habib Bourguiba, president since Tunisia's independence from France in 1956. The ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), was the sole legal party for 25 years--including when it was known as the Socialist Destourian Party (PSD)--and still dominates political life. The president is elected to 5-year terms--with virtually no opposition--and appoints a prime minister and cabinet, who play a strong role in the execution of policy. Regional governors and local administrators are also appointed by the central government; largely consultative mayors and municipal councils are elected. There is a bicameral legislative body. The Chamber of Deputies has 189 seats, 20% of which are reserved for the opposition. It plays a limited role as an arena for debate on national policy but never originates legislation and virtually always passes bills presented by the executive with only minor changes. A referendum in 2002 created a second chamber, the Chamber of Advisors. First-time elections for the Chamber of Advisors were held in July 2005. The judiciary is nominally independent, but responds to executive direction, especially in politically sensitive cases. The military is professional and does not play a role in politics.
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.
Progress toward full democracy has been slow. Over the years, President Bourguiba stood unopposed for re-election several times and was named "President for Life" in 1974 by a constitutional amendment. At the time of independence, the Neo-Destourian Party (later the PSD)--enjoying broad support because of its role at the forefront of the independence movement--became the sole legal party. Opposition parties were banned until 1981.
When President Ben Ali came to power in 1987, he promised greater democratic openness and respect for human rights, signing a "national pact" with opposition parties. He oversaw constitutional and legal changes, including abolishing the concept of President for life, the establishment of presidential term limits, and provision for greater opposition party participation in political life. But the ruling party, renamed the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), continued to dominate the political scene because of its historic popularity and the advantage it enjoyed as the ruling party. Ben Ali ran for re-election unopposed in 1989 and 1994. In the multiparty era, he won 99.44% of the vote in 1999 and 94.49% of the vote in 2004. In both elections he faced weak opponents. The RCD won all seats in the Chamber of Deputies in 1989, and won all of the directly elected seats in the 1994, 1999, and 2004 elections. However, constitutional amendments provided for the distribution of additional seats to the opposition parties by 1999 and 2004. Currently, five opposition parties share 37 of the 189 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. A May 2002 referendum approved constitutional changes proposed by Ben Ali that allowed him to run for a fourth term in 2004 (and a fifth, his final, because of age limits on presidential candidates, in 2009), and provided judicial immunity during and after his presidency. The referendum also created a second parliamentary chamber, the Chamber of Advisors, and provided for other changes.
There are currently eight legal opposition parties, the Social Democratic Movement (MDS), the Popular Unity Party (PUP), the Union of Democratic Unionists (UDU), Et-Tajdid (also called the Renewal Movement), the Liberal Social Party (PSL), and the Green Party for Progress (PVP), plus the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP) and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties (FDTL), the only two not represented in the Chamber of Deputies. The parties are generally weak and divided and face considerable restrictions on their ability to organize. The Islamist opposition party, An-Nahdha, was allowed to operate openly in the late 1980s and early 1990s despite a ban on religiously based parties. The government outlawed An-Nahdha as a terrorist organization in 1991 and arrested its leaders and thousands of party members and sympathizers, accusing them of plotting to overthrow the president. The party is no longer openly active in Tunisia, and its leaders operate from exile in London. Several pro-democracy activists have been denied permission to establish other opposition political parties.
While there are thousands of official, established non-governmental organizations, civil society remains weak. The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), the first human rights organization in Africa and the Arab world, operates under restrictions and suffers from internal divisions. The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), the Young Lawyers Association, and the Bar Association also are active. The government has denied legal status to a handful of other human rights advocacy groups who, nonetheless, attempt to organize and publicize information on the human rights situation in the country.
Despite the Government of Tunisia's stated committed to making progress toward a democratic system, citizens do not enjoy political freedom. The government imposes restrictions on freedom of association and speech and does not allow a free press. Many critics have called for clearer, effective distinctions between executive, legislative, and judicial powers. Foreign media, including foreign-based satellite television channels, have criticized the Tunisian Government for the lack of press freedom. Tunisia ranked number 148 out of 167 countries in the 2006 Reporters Without Borders list of World Press Freedom rankings. As reflected in the State Department's annual human rights report, there are frequent reports of widespread torture and abuse of prisoners, especially political prisoners.
Trade unions have played a key role in Tunisia's history since the struggle for independence, when the 1952 assassination of labor leader Farhat Hached was a catalyst for the final push against French domination. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), the country's sole labor confederation, has generally focused on bread-and-butter issues, but at some critical moments in Tunisia's history has played a decisive role in the nation's political life. Despite a drop in union membership from 400,000 to about 250,000 as the structure of the Tunisian economy changed, the UGTT continues to hold a prominent place in Tunisia's political and social life, and negotiates with government and the umbrella employer group for higher wages and better benefits. The current leadership under Abdessalem Jerad was elected at the 21st UGTT Congress held in December 2006.
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. 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.
Tunisia's judiciary is headed by the Court of Cassation, whose judges are appointed by the president. The country is divided administratively into 24 governorates. The president appoints all governors.
Principal Government Officials
Tunisia's embassy in the United States is located at 1515 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20005 (tel. 1-202-862-1850, fax 1-202-862-1858).
Tunisia's economy has emerged from rigid state control and is now mostly liberalized. World Bank and IMF support, coupled with prudent economic policies implemented by the Tunisian Government in the mid-eighties after a balance of payments crisis, has resulted in regular stable growth. Although this faltered after 9/11, the economy has since bounced back, thanks to healthy exports, renewed growth in tourism, and favorable climatic conditions which boosted agricultural production.
Manufacturing industries, producing largely for export, are a major source of foreign currency revenue. Industrial production represents about 28 percent of GDP and primarily consists of petroleum, mining (particularly phosphates), textiles, footwear, food processing, and electrical and mechanical manufactures. Textiles are a major source of foreign currency revenue, with more than 90% of production being exported. While the end of the Multifiber Arrangement in 2005 eroded Tunisia's competitiveness in its traditional European textile markets, to counteract this, manufacturers are successfully upgrading product lines and exporting smaller quantities of higher value items.
Tourism is a major source of foreign exchange, representing about 20 percent of hard currency receipts, as well as an important sector for employment. 6.5 million tourists visited Tunisia in 2006, hailing largely from Europe and North Africa. While the influx of tourists represents a boon to the economy. Tunisia's large expatriate population (about 1 million) also makes a positive and significant contribution. Over the past five years, remittances from abroad averaged 1.61 million dinars (approximately 1.21 million USD) a year, or roughly 5 percent of Tunisia's GDP and one fourth of the country's foreign currency earnings.
Soaring oil prices have hit the Tunisian economy hard. The country is a net importer of hydrocarbon products. Domestic crude production is approximately 112,000 barrels per day, but refining capacity is only about 30,000 barrels a day. Proven reserves are in the region of 300 million barrels. Tunisia has one oil refinery in Bizerte on the north coast and in May 2006 awarded a tender for a second at La Skhira near Gabes to Qatar Petroleum. Natural gas production is currently about 3 million tons oil equivalent Proven reserves are about 2.8 trillion cubic feet, two-thirds of which are located offshore. British Gas is the major developer of the natural gas industry, and the largest foreign investor in Tunisia.
Economically and commercially, Tunisia is very closely linked to Europe. Tunisia signed an Association Agreement with the EU, due to go into effect in 2008, which will eliminate customs tariffs and other trade barriers on a wide range of goods and services. In advance of the 2008 implementation of this Association Agreement, the Government of Tunisia embarked on a program, "Mise à Niveau",(industrial upgrading) to improve the competitiveness of Tunisian industry. Launched on a pilot scale in 1996, the "Mise a Niveau" program is supported in part by EU grants. The program consists of technical assistance, training, subsidies, and infrastructure upgrades aimed at encouraging and assisting Tunisian private sector industrial restructuring.
EU member states also provide the bulk of FDI, much of which has come in under the Government of Tunisia privatization program launched in 1987. In May 2006 the Government of Tunisia announced that overall its privatization program had raised $1.9 billion, of which $1.4 billion was foreign capital. This does not include the $2.25 billion the Government of Tunisia recently received for the sale to Dubai Holding of a 35% share in the national telecommunications authority, Tunisie Telecom. Persian Gulf investments in telecommunications, real estate, and energy are also a major source of FDI.
The Ministry of Industry and Energy is responsible for a program to improve the international competitiveness of Tunisian industry in preparation for free trade with the European Union. Launched on a pilot scale in 1996, the "Mise a Niveau" (industrial upgrading) program is supported in part by EU grants incorporated into the EU Association Agreement. The program combines government technical assistance, training, subsidies, and infrastructure upgrades aimed at encouraging and assisting Tunisian private sector industrial restructuring. More than 2,300 companies have applied to join the program, with more than half accepted.
A Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with the U.S. was signed in October 2002 and follow-up TIFA Councils were held in October 2003 and June 2005, but little progress has been made towards generating the necessary reforms required to engender a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Tunisia. The framework for a multilateral trade agreement with Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, known as the Agadir Agreement, has also been signed. The Agadir Agreement creates a potential market of over 100 million people across North Africa and into the Middle East.
The government still retains control over certain "strategic" sectors of the economy (finance, hydrocarbons, aviation, electricity and gas distribution, and water resources) but the private sector is playing an increasingly important role. Tunisia is a founding member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and is publicly committed to a free trade regime and export-led growth. Most goods can be imported without prior licensing, although non-tariff administrative barriers sometimes delay imports of goods. Significant import duties, coupled with high consumption taxes on certain items and a value-added tax (VAT), add considerably to the local price of imported goods.
The Government of Tunisia is beginning to take a more proactive stance on intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement and education. Tunisia's recent intellectual property rights law is designed to meet WTO TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property) minimum standards and there is on-going collaboration between the United States and Tunisian governments to promote public awareness of these rights.
Tunisia's timely completion of its IMF program (1987-1994) and subsequent fiscal conservatism have earned it investment grade ratings from a number of international institutions, although Standard and Poor has noted that ratings on Tunisia are constrained by its highly centralized political system and the need for further structural reforms. In mid-2005 the Tunisian Central Bank issued a new Euro-denominated bond on the London financial market. The issue totaled over $450 million (400 million Euros) with a maturity of 15 years. In 2004 the Government of Tunisia sold a similar bond with a total value of nearly $550 million and seven-year maturity.
The Central Bank is moving from direct management of the financial sector towards a more traditional supervisory and regulatory role. Commercial banks are permitted to participate in the forward foreign exchange market. The dinar is convertible for current account transactions but some convertible dinar/foreign exchange account transactions still require Central Bank authorization. Total convertibility of the Tunisian dinar is probably still some years away. The dinar is traded on an intra-bank market. Trading operates around a managed float established by the Central Bank (based upon a basket of the Euro, the U.S. Dollar and the Japanese Yen). The stock exchange remains under the supervision of the state-run financial market council, and lists about 50 companies. A new phase of the Mise a Niveau program aims to double this figure.
Tunisia has a relatively well-developed infrastructure that includes six commercial seaports and six international airports. The prequalification phase for a seventh airport near the coast at Enfidha was announced in April 2004. The project, a Build-to-Own 40-year concession eventually able to handle 30 million passengers per year, was awarded in May 2007 to a Turkish group and construction is expected to begin in July 2007. A tender for a deep water port in the same region is expected also.
Average annual income per capita in Tunisia is approaching $3000. The minimum monthly legal wage for a 48-hour week was recently raised to approximately $180. Tunisia's goal of pushing per capita incomes into the middle emerging market level calls for an average 6-7% growth rate instead of 4-5%. In 2006, GDP growth was 5.2%, but inflation spiked to 4.5%, from 2% the year before. Official figures claim unemployment is around 14%, but it is generally believed to be much higher in some regions. Despite the present low rate of population growth, a demographic peak is now hitting higher education and the job market. Tunisia has invested heavily in education and the number of students enrolled at university has soared from 41,000 in 1986 to over 360,000. Providing jobs for these highly educated people represents a major challenge for the Government of Tunisia.
Tunisia has long been a voice for moderation and realism in the Middle East. President Bourguiba was the first Arab leader to call for the recognition of Israel, in a speech in Jericho in 1965. Tunisia served as the headquarters of the Arab League from 1979 to 1990 and hosted the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) headquarters from 1982 to 1993. (The PLO Political Department remains in Tunis.) Tunisia consistently has played a moderating role in the negotiations for a comprehensive Middle East peace. In 1993, Tunisia was the first Arab country to host an official Israeli delegation as part of the Middle East peace process. The Government of Tunisia operated an Interests Section in Israel from April 1996 until the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000. Israeli citizens may travel to Tunisia on their Israeli passports.
Wedged between Algeria and Libya, Tunisia has sought to maintain good relations with its neighbors despite occasionally strained relations. Tunisia and Algeria resolved a longstanding border dispute in 1993 and have cooperated in the construction of a natural gas pipeline through Tunisia that connects Algeria to Italy. In 2002, Tunisia signed an agreement with Algeria to demarcate the maritime frontier between the two countries.
Tunisia's relations with Libya have been erratic since Tunisia annulled a brief agreement to form a union in 1974. Diplomatic relations were broken in 1976, restored in 1977, and deteriorated again in 1980, when Libyan-trained rebels attempted to seize the town of Gafsa. In 1982, the International Court of Justice ruled in Libya's favor in the partition of the oil-rich continental shelf it shares with Tunisia. Libya's 1985 expulsion of Tunisian workers and military threats led Tunisia to sever relations. Relations were normalized again in 1987. While supporting the UN sanctions imposed following airline bombings, Tunisia has been careful to maintain positive relations with her neighbor. Tunisia supported the lifting of UN sanctions against Libya in 2003, and Libya is again becoming a major trading partner, with 2005 exports to Libya valued at $472.2 million and imports at $509.9 million.
Tunisia has supported the development of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), which includes Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and Libya. Progress on Maghreb integration remains stymied, however, as a result of bilateral tensions between some member countries. Tunisia has played a positive role in trying to resolve these tensions.
The United States has very good relations with Tunisia, which date back more than 200 years. The United States has maintained official representation in Tunis almost continuously since 1795, and the American Friendship Treaty with Tunisia was signed in 1799. The two governments are not linked by security treaties, but relations have been close since Tunisia's independence. U.S.-Tunisian relations suffered briefly after the 1985 Israeli raid on PLO headquarters in Tunis, after the 1988 Tunis assassination of PLO terrorist Abu Jihad, and in 1990 during the Gulf War. In each case, however, relations warmed again quickly, reflecting strong bilateral ties. The United States and Tunisia have an active schedule of joint military exercises. U.S. security assistance historically has played an important role in cementing relations. The U.S.-Tunisian Joint Military Commission meets annually to discuss military cooperation, Tunisia's defense modernization program, and other security matters.
The United States first provided economic and technical assistance to Tunisia under a bilateral agreement signed March 26, 1957. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) managed a successful program until its departure in 1994, when Tunisia's economic advances led to the country's "graduation" from USAID funding. Tunisia enthusiastically supported the U.S.-North African Economic Partnership (USNAEP), designed to promote U.S. investment in, and economic integration of, the Maghreb region. The program provided over $4 million in assistance to Tunisia between 2001 and 2003. The Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) was launched in 2002 and incorporated the former USNAEP economic reform projects while adding bilateral and regional projects for education reform, civil society development and women's empowerment. In 2004, the MEPI Regional Office opened in Embassy Tunis. The Regional Office is staffed by American diplomats and regional specialists. It is responsible for coordinating MEPI activities in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia in close coordination with the American Embassies in those countries.
American private assistance has been provided liberally since independence by foundations, religious groups, universities, and philanthropic organizations. The U.S. Government has supported Tunisia's efforts to attract foreign investment. The United States and Tunisia concluded a bilateral investment treaty in 1990 and an agreement to avoid double taxation in 1989. In October 2002, the U.S. and Tunisia signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), and in October 2003 held the first TIFA Council Meeting in Washington, DC.
American firms seeking to invest in Tunisia and export to Tunisia can receive insurance and financing for their business through U.S. Government agencies, including the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export-Import Bank. The best prospects for foreigners interested in the Tunisian market are in high technology, energy, agribusiness, food processing, medical care and equipment, and the environmental and tourism sectors.
Principal U.S. Officials
The U.S. Embassy in Tunisia is located in Les Berges du Lac 1053 Tunis, Tunisia (tel: 216-71-107-000, fax: 216-71-107-090).
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
For the latest security information, Americans living and traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Internet web site at http://www.travel.state.gov, where the current Worldwide Caution, Public Announcements, and Travel Warnings can be found. Consular Affairs Publications, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad, are also available at http://www.travel.state.gov. For additional information on international travel, see http://www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/Travel/International.shtml.
The Department of State encourages all U.S citizens traveling or residing abroad to register via the State Department's travel registration website or at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. Registration will make your presence and whereabouts known in case it is necessary to contact you in an emergency and will enable you to receive up-to-date information on security conditions.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the U.S. and Canada or the regular toll line 1-202-501-4444 for callers outside the U.S. and Canada.
The National Passport Information Center (NPIC) is the U.S. Department of State's single, centralized public contact center for U.S. passport information. Telephone: 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778). Customer service representatives and operators for TDD/TTY are available Monday-Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight, Eastern Time, excluding federal holidays.
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP (877-394-8747) and a web site at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/index.htm give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled "Health Information for International Travel" (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Further Electronic Information
Export.gov provides a portal to all export-related assistance and market information offered by the federal government and provides trade leads, free export counseling, help with the export process, and more.STAT-USA/Internet, a service of the U.S. Department of Commerce, provides authoritative economic, business, and international trade information from the Federal government. The site includes current and historical trade-related releases, international market research, trade opportunities, and country analysis and provides access to the National Trade Data Bank.
Revised: Jun. 2007