Tunisia: Country Profile

Tunisia was once the Jewel in France’s Imperial Crown: a tiny country of today under 10 million, with fertile date and olive groves on the Mediterranean coast and harsh Saharan desert south of the mines of Gafsa.

Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956 under the leadership of Habib Bourghiba but in 1988 control of the country passed into the hands ofZine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who became a loathed dictator, supported by his family and cronies in 1988.  Touted around Europe as the “most advanced democracy in the region of North Africa and the Maghreb” Tunisia was favoured by the EU with the promise of Advanced (Economic) Status from the Autumn of 2011.  Until the events of early 2011 European institutions showed little interest in the documented Human Rights Abuses of Ben Ali and his regime: the incarceration of thousands of Muslims, trade unionists, the harassment and virtual “house arrest” of Human Rights Defenders and journalists, the denial of a free press and freedom of information.


On 17 December 2010 Mohammed Bouazizi, aged only 24, a graduate vegetable seller set himself alight in despair at a future of poverty and unemployment in Sidi Bouzid, a small town in Central Tunisia.  He died on 4 January and the World watched with wonder as up to half a million young people, trade unionist and others took to the streets to protest daily against the economic and political injustices perpetrated on Tunisian soil.  In Kasserine alone, a poor city with very high unemployment near the Algerian border 38 young people died in fierce fighting with security police.  Finally, on January 24th 2011 Ben Ali, and his hated entourage, including many from the Trableski and Mabrouk families fled.  The first provisional government which included 13 ministers from Ben Ali’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) fled after 2 weeks of sit ins in Parliament Square.  Two weeks later a second sit in spearheaded by caravans of country people protesting at the retention of RCD mayors in their regions persuaded the Minister or the Interior to freeze assets and activities of the RCD pending its formal dissolution.  Many RCD members in cities towns and villages across the country were forced out of office. 

April to October 2011

Influential members of Ennahda, exiled opponents of the Ben Ali regime, trade union activists and students quickly met to establish a provisional Government and to work on a Constitution.  The trade union structure established under Bourghiba, whilst previously collaborating with Ben Ali’s regime, had retained its structure and was able to swing into a semblance of democratic action.  Ennahda, the Islamist party and Tunisian Branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had operated underground for 30 years became lawful.

The National Constituent Assembly (NCA)

Ennahda, led by Hamadi Jebali, the General Secretary, won the first free elections by gaining  89 out of 217 seats (51% overall majority) in the caretaker administration of the NCA in October 2011. 

However, in February 2013 two secular opposition leaders, Mohammed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid were assassinated, and following violent demonstrations, including a million at Belaid’s funeral and clashes with the police, the current care-taker Prime Minister, the secular Mehdi Jomaa took over from Jebali.  He is a former company executive who had served briefly as industry minister and who favours a technocratic cabinet.

On February 6 2014 the leftist opposition MP Shakari Bulack was assassinated in cold blood allegedly by Salafist extremists and tensions flared again.  Ennhada now treads carefully in this most secular of Arab States,  keeping a wary eye on events in its powerful neighbour Egypt, and the fate of Mohammed Morsi and the Egyptian Brotherhood.  The trials of Morsi’s Cabinet are due to start on 2 August 2014.  Both Ennahda members and secular Tunisians fear a return to  the brutality they experienced under Ben Ali, as in Egypt, where up to 20,000 are currently imprisoned, including children, Human Rights lawyers and journalists.

Ennahda have finally agreed to the demands of their secular counterparts that general elections will be held before presidential elections probably in October 2014 and December 2014.  The public face of their leader Rachid Ghannouchi is to support power sharing, whether or not Ennahda wins the elections and to state that Ennahda will not field their own presidential candidate, but will support an “independent”.   Ali Larayedh who is Ennahda;s current deputy general secretary recently stated ‘exercising power in a nascent democracy inevitably requires pragmatism and compromise.  What happened in Egypt has strengthened this tendency’.

The constitution was finalised on 8 February 2014, but the hopes of the revolution have turned to sour grapes for the unemployed youth including many graduates, who created the Revolution.   Youth unemployment is up from 30 to 33% since 2012. 60,000.00 people have left the country since 2011.   Drug abuse among young people increases, with a particular addiction to Subutex, a methadone substitute.  There continues to be neglect of the regions, with all financial resources focused on Tunis and the Mediterranean coast popular with tourists.

The Future

Tunisians fear the turmoil of Egypt and Libya where a dissident general Khalifa Haftar wages war against radical Islamists. The challenge of re-organising quickly into a democratic society after 23 years of terror when free expression and organisation was impossible has proved enormous.  The inability to secure EU“no strings” financial support to boost the economy in the short term, means that the economic concerns, particularly of the young,  which led to the revolution still remain but so far the horrors of Tunisia’s big brothers have been avoided and hope for a moderate Islamist nation survives.