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Tunisians have traded democratic freedoms for economic and political stability

Tunisia can be divided into four main geographical regions. The northern one-third of the country consists of spurs of the Atlas Mountains but also encompasses fertile valleys and plains. These mountains descend further south to a broad plateau and further south still to a series of shallow salt lakes, known as shatts. Beyond these lies the Sahara Desert, which occupies around two-fifths of the territory.

Tunisians are almost entirely Arab, since the original Berber inhabitants have been assimilated. By African standards, they enjoy a relatively high standard of living and a low rate of population growth.

There is still some poverty, and unemployment is around 17%, but mindful of the potential for militant Islam among disaffected youth, the government has maintained food subsidies and largely free health services. Primary education is free and compulsory though literacy is still only 74%.

Tunisia's economy is broadly based. The country has been moving on from agriculture and from dependence on oil and phosphates and now has a number of manufacturing industries that employ one-fifth of the workforce. Some of the fastest growth has been in textiles, which are now the leading export, though this industry is facing increasing competition from Asia.

Tunisia has been an oil producer since 1966. There have been promising new finds but the country is now a net importer. Phosphates too now make up a much smaller proportion of exports since they are used locally as raw material for fertilizers and chemicals.

Half the workforce is employed in agriculture. Most farms are fairly small and largely worked by hand. The main crop in the fertile northern plains is wheat, along with barley and vegetables, but harvests are vulnerable to erratic rainfall.

The drier parts of the country are used to grow dates and particularly olives, of which Tunisia is one of the largest producers. The main restriction is a lack of water since the country is already using around 80% of its water for irrigation. One-quarter of the land is forest, or used for grazing animals, but livestock-raising too is vulnerable to drought.

Of the service industries, one of the most important is tourism. Tunisia's coastal resorts are favourite package-holiday destinations for Europeans. Tourism, with around six million visitors a year, accounts for 5% of GDP but revenues are fairly static. The government takes care to prevent tourists finding out about human rights abuses, and regularly bans the foreign press. The country's hotels and resorts will need considerable investment if they are to attract higher-spending visitors.

Only two presidents since 1956

Tunisia's political system is less diverse than its economy. Since independence in 1956, it has been ruled by the same party and has had only two presidents, neither of whom have been enthusiasts for political pluralism.

Tunisia's first president was Habib Bourgiba, at the head of what was subsequently called the Parti socialiste destourien. Initially, Bourgiba was relatively progressive, promoting the rights of women, for example. But he grew increasingly autocratic, jailing opposition leaders and clamping down on the media. In 1975, he had himself elected president-for-life. The strongest opposition came from the underground Mouvement de la tendence Islamique (MTI). To combat the MTI, Bourgiba in 1986 appointed as interior minister General Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He was so successful at crushing the MTI that in 1987 Bourgiba gratefully appointed him prime minister.


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