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Country Profile : Tunisia

Country profile: Tunisia

Map of Tunisia

Home of the ancient city of Carthage, Tunisia has long been an important player in the Mediterranean, placed as it is in the centre of North Africa, close to vital shipping routes.

In their time, the Romans, Arabs, Ottoman Turks and French realised its strategic significance, making it a hub for control over the region.

French colonial rule ended in 1956, and Tunisia was led for three decades by Habib Bourguiba, who advanced secular ideas. These included emancipation for women - women's rights in Tunisia are among the most advanced in the Arab world - the abolition of polygamy and compulsory free education.

Mr Bourguiba insisted on an anti-Islamic fundamentalist line, while increasing his own powers to become a virtual dictator.


At a glance

Tunisians celebrate the ousting of Zine Ben Ali
  • Politics: Tunisia has been in a state of transition since President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in January 2011 following widespread unrest. The election of a constitutional assembly was held in October 2011
  • Economy: The diverse economy has grown steadily and the slum population has halved, but the world recession has pushed unemployment up in recent years
  • International: Tunisia has strong ties with the European Union; its peacekeepers have served in several conflict areas


In 1987 he was dismissed on grounds of senility and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali' became president. He continued with a hard line against Islamic extremists, but inherited an economically-stable country.

Although Tunisia under Mr Ben Ali introduced some press freedoms and freed a number of political prisoners, human rights groups said the authorities tolerated no dissent, harassing government critics and rights activists.

Mr Ben Ali faced reproach at home and abroad for his party's three "99.9%" election wins. The opposition condemned changes to the constitution which allowed him to run for re-election in 2004, and in 2009.

Discontent with his autocratic rule erupted in into mass street demonstrations which prompted Mr Ben Ali to step aside in 2011. This inspired uprisings across the region that became known as the Arab Spring.

Tunisia is more prosperous than its neighbours and has strong trade links with Europe. Agriculture employs a large part of the workforce, and dates and olives are cultivated in the drier regions. Millions of European tourists flock to Tunisian resorts every year.

Political violence was rare until recently, but militant Islamists have become an issue of concern for the authorities. A suicide bomb attack on an historic synagogue in the resort of Djerba in 2002 killed 21 people and led to a dramatic drop in tourist numbers.

A dozen suspected Islamists were killed in shoot-outs with security forces in and around Tunis at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007. Lawyers say hundreds of people were arrested on suspicion of links with terrorist groups since 2003, when the authorities gained new powers of arrest.



Tunisian woman with dates Dates and other agricultural products are important export earners
  • Full name: Tunisian Republic
  • Population: 10.4 million (UN, 2010)
  • Capital: Tunis
  • Area: 164,150 sq km (63,378 sq miles)
  • Major languages: Arabic (official); French
  • Major religion: Islam
  • Life expectancy: 73 years (men), 77 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: 1 Tunisian dinar (TD) = 1,000 millimes
  • Main exports: Agricultural products, textiles, oil
  • GNI per capita: US $4,060 (World Bank, 2010)
  • Internet domain: .tn
  • International dialling code: +216



President: Moncef Marzouki

Prime minister: Hamadi Jebali

Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki Moncef Marzouki opposed his predecessor and was forced into exile

Veteran dissident Moncef Marzouki was installed as president in December 2011, a few months after the popular protests which forced autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power and which inspired the Arab Spring uprisings across the region.

Members of the constitutional assembly, the interim parliament, voted to elect Mr Marzouki as president, the second most powerful role after the prime minister.

He is widely respected for his opposition to former president Ben Ali, and is seen as a likely counterweight to the moderate Islamist party which became the country's dominant political force in the elections of October 2011.

A doctor and human rights campaigner, Mr Marzouki was jailed in 1994 after challenging Mr Ben Ali in a presidential election.

He only returned home after Mr Ben Ali was toppled.

His curt demeanour, hard-hitting speech, craggy face and oversize glasses have made him a cartoonists' delight.

While admirers say Mr Marzouki's character is beyond reproach, critics accuse him of being a pawn of the Islamist Ennahda, which has 89 deputies in the new parliament, where Mr Marzouki's Congress for the Republic (CPR) party is in distant second place with 29 seats.

Mr Marzouki was elected as part of a power-sharing deal between the moderate Islamist Ennahda party and its two smaller secularist coalition partners, Ettakatol and Marzouki's Congress for the Republic.

The deal gives the president limited powers. He sets Tunisia's foreign policy in consultation with the prime minister. He is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces but can only appoint or fire senior officers in consultation with the prime minister.

The ouster of president Mr Ben Ali sparked the Arab Spring that also saw long-time dictators toppled in Egypt and Libya.

Tunisian former president Ben Ali Mr Ben Ali went into exile amid mass street protests

Mr Ben Ali became president in 1987, after doctors declared President Habib Bourguiba unfit to govern because of senility. The takeover is sometimes described as a palace coup.

Rights groups and political opponents said Tunisia's government was authoritarian with a veneer of pluralism. They said it stifled free speech and beat and jailed opponents, which the government denied.

  • Tunisians went to the polls on 23 October 2011 to elect a national assembly which will draw up a new constitution. The Islamist Ennahda won the most votes but fell short of an outright majority and formed a coalition with two secularist parties which will govern until new elections are held for permanent institutions.



Tunisian newspaper reader Newspapers were tightly controlled under former president Ben Ali

The government of former President Ben Ali tightly controlled the press and broadcasting. But since the 2011 popular revolt, many journalists have enjoyed new-found freedoms.

The number of radio and TV channels and print publications has increased, as has their freedom to report and debate political and social issues.

State TV - which had toed the government line - has changed tack, giving airtime to the former opposition.

However, some journalists say the network of editors and censors set up under Mr Ben Ali remains in place.

The state broadcaster operates two national TV channels and several radio networks. Egyptian, French and pan-Arab satellite TVs command large audiences.

Tunisia has one of the most developed telecommunications infrastructures in North Africa, with a high mobile penetration rate and low broadband prices.

There were 3.6 million internet users by June 2010 - 34% of the population (Internetworldstats.com). The extensive use of social media during the January 2011 protests prompted some commentators to describe the events as a "Facebook victory" and a "Twitter revolution".

Pervasive internet filtering ended with the fall of Mr Ben Ali. A few months later, however, officials ordered the blocking of four Facebook pages set up by cyber activists. Courts have ordered the Tunisian Internet Agency to ban access to pornographic sites.

The press

La Presse - state-owned daily

Esshafa - state-owned daily

Assabah - privately-owned daily

Alchourouk - privately-owned daily

Le Temps - privately-owned daily


National Tunisian TV - state-run

Hannibal TV - private, via satellite and terrestrially


Tunisian Radio - state-run

Radio Mosaique FM - private

Jawhara FM - private

Zitouna FM - Islamic

News agency/internet

Agence Tunis Afrique Presse - state-run, English-language pages

Tunisia Live - news website, in English


A chronology of key events:

circa 1100 BC - Phoenicians settle the north African coast. The city of Carthage, near the site of present-day Tunis, becomes a naval power.

146 BC - Carthage falls to the Romans.

439 AD - Vandals invade; Roman buildings and artefacts are destroyed.

600s - Arabs conquer the territory of present-daTunisia.

909 - Berbers wrest the region from the Arabs.

Ottoman Empire

1600s - Tunisia becomes part of the Turkish Ottoman empire, but has a high degree of autonomy.

1800s - French and Turkish designs on Tunisia force it to tread a careful path.

1881 - French troops occupy Tunis. France controls economic and foreign affairs; Tunisia is a French protectorate from 1883.

1934 - Habib Bourguiba founds the pro-independence Neo-Dustour Party

1942 - World War II: German troops arrive to resist allied forces in Algeria. Allied forces drive German, Italian troops out in 1943.


1956 20 March - Tunisia becomes independent with Bourguiba as prime minister.

1957 - The monarchy is abolished and Tunisia becomes a republic.

1961 - Tunisia says French forces must leave their base in Bizerte. Fighting breaks out. France pulls out of Bizerte in 1963, after long-running talks.

1981 - First multi-party parliamentary elections since independence. President Bourguiba's party wins by a landslide.

1985 - Israel raids Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) HQ in Tunis; 60 people are killed. The raid is in response to the killing by the PLO of three Israeli tourists in Cyprus.

1987 - Bloodless palace coup: Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has President Bourguiba declared mentally unfit to rule and takes power himself.

1989 - Ben Ali wins presidential elections. He goes on to be re-elected four more times, the last time in 2009.

1999 - First multi-party presidential elections; Ben Ali wins a third term.

2000 April - Habib Bourguiba, the founding father of independent Tunisia, dies.

2002 April - 19 people - 11 of them German tourists - are killed in a bomb explosion at a synagogue in the resort of Djerba; Al-Qaeda claims responsibility.

2002 May - President Ben Ali wins a referendum on constitutional changes, paving the way for his fourth term.

2002 September - Jailed leader of Communist Workers' Party, Hamma Hammami, is freed on health grounds. He had been accused of being in an illegal organisation and of inciting rebellion.

2004 October - President Ben Ali wins a fourth term with 94% of the vote.

2005 July - Parliament introduces an upper house - the Chamber of Councillors - which is dominated by the ruling party.

2005 November - Tunisia hosts a UN conference on the global information society. Authorities deny that police have harassed journalists and other delegates.

2006 - October - Authorities launch a campaign against the Islamic headscarves worn by some women.

Tunisia moves to close its embassy in Qatar in protest at alleged bias by the Qatar-based al-Jazeera TV channel. The channel broadcast remarks by veteran Tunisian dissident Moncef Marzouki in which he called for peaceful resistance to the Tunisian government.

2006 December - The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition party, elects a woman as leader - a first for Tunisia. She is May Eljeribi.

2007 January - Islamist militants and security forces clash in Tunis. Twelve people are killed. Interior Minister Rafik Belhadj Kacem says the Salafist militants had come from Algeria.

2009 February - French court sentences German convert to Islam to 18 years over attack on Djerba synagogue in 2002. Walid Nouar, brother of suicide bomber, got 12 years for his part in al-Qaeda attack.

2009 July - Police charge nine men, including two air-force officers, with plotting to kill US servicemen during joint military exercises.

2009 October - President Ben Ali wins a fifth term in office.

2009 November - Taoufik Ben Brik, a journalist critical of the president, is jailed for assault. Rights groups say the case is politically motivated.

2010 July - Appeals court upholds prison sentence imposed on journalist Fahem Boukadous over his coverage of violent protests.

2010 December - Protests break out over unemployment and political restrictions, and spread nationwide.

2011 January - President Ben Ali goes into exile amid continuing protests.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announces an interim national unity government, only partly satisfying protesters.

2011 February - Prime minister Ghannouchi resigns, responding to demands by demonstrators calling for a clean break with the past.

2011 March - Date for election of a constitutional council set for 24 July.

Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD), the party of ousted President Ben Ali, is dissolved by court order.

2011 April - Libyan troops cross border into Tunisia during clashes with rebels.

Thousands of Tunisians flee by boat to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

2011 May - Curfew imposed amid fresh street protests.

2011 June - Ex-president Ben Ali is tried in absentia for theft. He is sentenced to 35 years in prison.

2011 October - Parliamentary elections. Ennahda party wins but falls short of an outright majority.

2011 November - National assembly which will draft a new constitution meets for first time.

2011 December - New president, prime minister sworn in.


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