Social reform in Tunisia builds on history and democratic institutions

Following independence from France the 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. These measures helped Tunisia to establish itself leading regional example of modernisation and development.

Building on these foundations, following the 2011 Jasmine Revolution Tunisia rose to become a leading example of a successful post-Arab Spring democracy. While the pace of structural reform at first faced delays brought about by the difficulties of democratic transition and macroeconomic headwinds, this situation has now shifted; with political stability, steadily rising growth and investment, and an increased drive towards competitiveness (see Economy chapter). Today, Tunisia is among the most liberal and open countries in the Arab world, boasting regular and reliable elections, multiple political parties and respect for the rule of law.

History

Tunisia has a rich, 4000-year-old history with Berber tribes being the first recorded inhabitants. The Phoenicians – who originated from the Levant – started to settle the territory in the 12th century BCE and founded the city of Carthage in the 9th century BCE. 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.

The Ottoman Empire then expanded into the region, assimilating the territory in the 16th century until it became a French protectorate in 1881. At the time of its independence from France in 1956, Tunisia had its constitution and administrative structure partly modelled on the French system.

The country’s first president, Bourguiba, was followed in 1987 by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled until he was overthrown in 2011 during the Jasmine Revolution, which sparked the Arab Spring. The country’s new constitution, modelled in part on the demands of the popular protest movement, was adopted in 2014. Since then, Tunisia’s democracy has been progressing on a social and institutional level, despite facing a series of political, economic and security challenges in recent years.

Population & Demographics

Tunisia has a small, relatively homogeneous population, emerging from a diverse background of civilisations. The territory has seen a plethora of cultures pass through its borders over the centuries – all of which have left their mark on modern Tunisian culture – making the modern population a mixture of Mediterranean, Arab, Ottoman and Berber, among others.

The population of Tunisia stood at 11.6m people in 2018, according to the World Bank. Despite the country’s relatively small size, compared to its immediate neighbours – Algeria to its west, and Libya to its east – the country is not very densely populated, with roughly 68% of Tunisians living in urban areas. The northern and eastern coastal areas of the country remain the most populous and the capital Tunis is the largest city with a population of over 1m people, followed by Sfax with more than 970,000. 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. Furthermore, life expectancy at birth has increased steadily from 68.7 years in 1990 to 75.9 years by 2017. Despite facing political and economic challenges Tunisia has been able to consistently reduce poverty rates, which went down from 23.1% in 2005 to 15.2% by 2015, according to the National Institute of Statistics.

However, economic and educational outcomes continue to show great variation between different regions of the country, with urban settlements in the interior of Tunisia and rural areas showing higher levels of unemployment and performing less well in other metrics than the capital or coastal towns. While overall unemployment remains an issue it has fallen in recent years, falling from a peak of 18.3% in 2011 to 15.5% in 2018, according to the World Bank.

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.

In addition, French is spoken by over 60% of the population, is widely used in media, education, culture and science. 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. Furthermore, the Berber language is still spoken in a number of pockets around the country. Islam is the country’s predominant religion, with around 99% of Tunisians professing to be Sunni Muslims. A small community of Christians – made up of mainly of Berbers as well as citizens of French, Italian and Maltese descent – along with Tunisian Jews, most of whom reside on the island of Djerba, which has had a Jewish quarter dating back 2500 years. Although freedom of worship has long been enshrined in the Tunisian constitution, Islam remains the official state religion.

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, with this location influencing the development of the country’s supply chain and trade links. 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, which plays host to the majority of the country’s agricultural production.

Natural Resources 

Despite occupying a comparatively smaller geographical area than any of its neighbours, Tunisia nonetheless benefits from rich natural resources that have supported its economic development over the past five decades. 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 segment in Tunisia has been suffering as a result of disruptions brought about by the transition to democracy. In addition, the country possesses mineral reserves including iron ore, zinc, lead and salt.

While Tunisia does not possess the large hydrocarbons reserves characteristic of other states in the region, it has nonetheless benefitted from the export of natural gas and petroleum. Despite this, low levels of exploration for new fields have limited the country’s hydrocarbons output, prompting the authorities to initiate reforms intended to attract new exploration investment and halt the depletion of existing reserves. Hydrocarbons production and the development of new fields has also been affected by rising domestic consumption, inadequate refinement facilities and labour disputes, Tunisia is now a net importer of petroleum products.

Gender Equality 

Building on the legacy of the Personal Status Code and the country’s legislation regarding family planning, Tunisia has made considerable progress on improving women’s rights. In June 2017 the Parliament approved a landmark law to protect women against domestic violence. In addition, Tunisia repealed the long-standing ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.

Furthermore, there has been increased public debate regarding the reform of the country’s inheritance laws. Under the current framework Tunisian women only inherit half of what their male siblings are entitled to. The most recent government proposal plans to give women the right to equal inheritance, but allow them to opt out if they so choose. Voting on the law is likely to take place after the country’s presidential and parliamentary elections, which are scheduled to take place at the end of 2019.

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Tunisia 2019 . Explore other chapters from this report.