Tunisia at a glance
Full Name:  Tunisian Republic
Capital:  Tunis
Area:  163,610 sq km
Population (m):  10.9 (2013)
Currency:  Tunisian dinar (TND) $1 = TND 1.46 (August 2010)
Religions:  Muslim 98%, Christian 1%, Jewish/other 1%
Languages:   Arabic (official), French
International organisations:  Maghreb Arab Union, IAEA, IMF, UN, WTO

Located on the coast of North Africa, Tunisia has a 1,148-kilometre Mediterranean coastline to the north and east and borders Algeria to the west and Libya to the southeast. Major settlements are concentrated on the coastline, while the interior features mountains in the north, hot, dry plains in the centre and a semi-arid southern region bordering the Sahara Desert.

Since it gained independence from France in 1956, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali took over from Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup on 7 November 1987. Bourguiba had been president for 30 years and Ben Ali said that never again would there be a president for life. But the constitution was twice changed during his tenure to allow him to remain in power, until the Arab Uprisings in 2011.

Government

Tunisia’s first democratically elected President, Beji Caid Essebsi, was inaugurated on 31 December 2014. He named independent Habib Essid as prime minister. Negotiations are continuing between Essid and political parties to form a government, after his first proposal was discarded before reaching a parliamentary vote of confidence.

At the start of 2011, Ben Ali’s presidency came to an abrupt end as he was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia amid a popular uprising. Protestors took to the street in late December 2010 in support of a Mohammed Bouazzi, an unemployed graduate who died by setting himself on fire after police prevented him selling fruit and vegetables without a licence. In the weeks that followed, protests over unemployment, food price rises and corruption escalated and demonstrators called for the president to stand down.

Tunisian police opened fire on protesters killing two people in the north-western town of Kef. Protesters later set fire to the police station in response and tried to march on the town prison before troops intervened. In the central town of Kebili, another person was killed in clashes after being hit by a teargas canister.

The uprising in Tunisia was the catalyst for a series of protests across the Arab world, including Egypt, Iran, Bahrain and most violently in Libya.

Tunisia was then run by an interim unity government under Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi before elections were held in 2011. Tunisia’s interim government dissolved the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), the party of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

In October 2011, moderate Islamist party Ennahda was announced as the winner in Tunisia’s first elections. The Constitutive Assembly was tasked with writing a new constitution. Moncef Marzouki (Congress for the Republic) was appointed president and Hamadi Jebali (Ennahda) was prime minister, followed by Ali Laariadh (Ennahda).

Following the assassination of two members of the opposition in 2013, the constitutional process broke down. The ‘quartet’, (The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), The Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Artisans (UTICA) and the Tunisian National Lawyers’ Order) negotiated the resignation of the Ennahdha-led government. Independent Mehdi Jomaa became prime minister, with a technocrat cabinet, and oversaw the completion and approval of the constitution.

It is seen as a historic constitution for the Arab world, enshrining women’s rights and setting out democratic processes for Tunisia.

Parliamentary and presidential elections were held in late 2014. Nidaa Tounes, a right-of-centre party with some continuity from the Ben Ali regime, won 86 of 217 parliamentary seats. Beji Caid Essebsi, the party’s central figure, won the presidential run-offs against interim President Moncef Marzouki.

Tunisia is a constitutional republic with a unicameral parliamentary legislature. The president is elected by popular vote for a five-year term and is the head of state. The prime minister is nominated by the president and is the head of government. He appoints a cabinet which must be approved by the Assembly of People’s Representatives (ARP). Members are elected to the 217-member ARP for a five-year term, by proportional representation from party lists in 33 constituencies.

The two largest parties are the Ennahda Movement (Islamist) and Nidaa Tounes (secularist right-of-centre). 13 other parties won seats in parliament, including rightwing Free Patriotic Union (UPL) and leftwing Popular Front.

Last presidential election: 2014

Last parliamentary election: 2014

Nidaa Tounes – 86 of the 217 seats

Ennahda – 69 seats

UPL – 16 seats

Popular Front – 15 seats

Economy

Tunisia relies heavily on trade with the European Union, with France, Italy and Germany being the most significant trading partners.

The North African state survived the global economic crisis relatively well due to limited foreign liabilities and the declining value of the Tunisian dinar against the euro. GDP slowed to 3 per cent in 2009 from 4.6 per cent in 2008.

Government unemployment figures are around 14 per cent but analysts believe that figure is higher among university graduates. The 2010 Tunisian budget includes a $500m stimulus package to lower unemployment in the country.

Foreign direct investment in Tunisia totalled $1.62bn in 2009 with the country’s hydrocarbon sector receiving $945m and manufacturing receiving $450m. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2009-10 ranks Tunisia at number 40 in regards to its economic environment and scope for future growth.

Tunisia is considered one of the most stable of the north African Arab states in regards to liberalisation of trade and business.

Oil & Gas

Exploration began in Tunisia in 1966 with the exploration of the El Borma plains. But compared with its North African neighbours Algeria and Libya, Tunisia has modest oil and gas reserves. Tunisia reached peak oil output in 1998 with 110,000 barrels a day (b/d). In 2009, Tunisia’s oil production was 91,379 b/d, its highest daily production since 1994. Tunisia’s consumption of oil in 2009 was 88,947 b/d. Estimated oil reserves in the country stand at around 1.7 billion barrels while proven gas reserves are just over 65 billion cubic metres.

According to projects tracker MEED Projects, Tunisia has around $3.75bn worth of oil and gas projects on-going as of August 2010. Due to Tunisia’s current low refining capacity, the centrepiece of the country’s hydrocarbon plans is Qatar Petroleum’s (QP) $3bn La Skhira Refinery, which will be built at the port city of La Skhira, 300km south of Tunis. 

The refinery will have a capacity of 120,000 barrels a day of gasoline, diesel, petroleum coke, bitumen and vacuum gas-oil (VGO), as well as other clean fuels when completed in the fourth quarter of 2013. The La Skhira project owner is Qatar Petroleum and the company has been offered a build, own operate deal that will see it manage the facility for 30 years.

Most of Tunisia’s other oil and gas projects are onshore and offshore exploration permits ranging in value from $5m up to $50m and more than 30 international oil companies (IOCs) operate in the country mostly involved in oil and gas exploration and production. 

Power & water

Tunisia is investing heavily in its power and water sector to both meet domestic demand, which is growing at a rate of around 5 per cent per annum.

Most of the major projects currently under way are independent power projects (IPP) that will allow Tunisia to increase capacity without needing to find billions of dollars for the initial investment. The power produced will be bought by the state-controlled utility Societe Tunisienne de l’Electricite & du Gaz (Steg) under a power-purchase agreement (PPA). The rest will be exported to foreign markets such as Italy. 

Major projects currently under construction or being planned include the 400MW Bizerte IPP, the 1,200MW El-Haouaria and the 400MW Sousse Plant.

Tunisia also plans to increase renewable energy’s contribution to 175 MW by 2010-11 – around 4.2 per cent of total electricity capacity.

Construction & transport

Substantial investment is also being directed to improving the country’s transport infrastructure with current projects including a $2.1bn high-speed rail network, a $400m roads rehabilitation and the Tunis Light railway project. The $1.65bn Enfidha Deepwater Port 60km south of Tunis is also being constructed 60km south of Tunis. The port development will have eventual capacity of 6-8 million twenty-foot equivalent units and be home to a large free zone and logistics park.

A series of real estate projects are also being developed with the largest the $25bn Mediterranean Gate in Tunis. The development will provide housing for around 500,000 people and be centred around Tunis’ old harbour. Other major projects include the $3bn Tunis Financial Harbour and the $5bn Tunis Sports City.