By Karim BEN BECHER, Ambassador of Tunisia to the Netherlands.
Tunisia, the cradle of many civilisations in the Mediterranean region, was long been considered as a land of tolerance, culture and mutual understanding.
Located in North Africa, Tunisia has a long history dating back to Carthage, a population of over 10 million, and a diversified economy. The country has one of the highest standards of living on the continent and a well established tradition of tolerance and hospitality. Although Tunisia does not have big reserves of hydrocarbons, manufacturing industry, tourism, and agriculture have been most developed.
Having a green landscape in the north, sandy beaches on the coast side and a lunar like landscape in the south, Tunisia has indeed a great environmental diversity and became a renowned tourist destination
The country achieved its independence in 1956, and founded its first republic under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, the first Tunisian President. A Code of Personal Status was adopted which set forth a prominent legal status for women allowing them to run and own businesses, have bank accounts, and passports. The code abolished polygamy and repudiation. Further reforms in 2010 allowed Tunisian women to give citizenship to their children even if they are married to a foreigner and living abroad. The Code of Personal Status is one of the most progressive civil codes in the Middle East and the Muslim world. An important birth control policy resulted in a low population growth rate, just over 1% per annum, contributing to economic and social stability.
On January 14th 2011, a popular uprising ousted the former President Ben Ali who took over the presidency in November 1987, and set up a corrupt and authoritarian regime. Expectations were high. Dignity, liberty and justice for all, were the main leitmotivs. It was also the spark of the Arab Spring. In fact, it was a `Jasmine Revolution` that resulted in a smooth transition process to democracy, a sui generis revolution without revenge or much bloodshed. Tunisia is a pioneer of the Arab spring.
A National Constituent Assembly was elected on October 23rd, 2011 with the task of drafting and adopting a new Constitution and thus building the second Republic in Tunisia. International and national observers declared the vote free and fair. The Assembly began drafting a new constitution in February 2012, released a second working draft in December 2012.
According to the last draft of the Constitution of June 1st 2013, the political and juridical system is to be based on the civilian character of the state, the rule of law, the sovereignty of the people, free and fair elections, the separation and balance of powers, gender equality, the respect of freedoms and human rights, the freedom of expression and conscience, and the independence of the Justice.
The political scene is no more dominated by a single political party. Multiparty system is nowadays a reality. Since the revolution the number of political parties in Tunisia has grown over one hundred.
The Government led by Prime Minister Ali Larayedh has proposed presidential and parliamentary elections be held by the end of 2013. The political parties inside the Constituent Assembly making efforts in order to adopt the new Constitution by October 2013.
Thanks to the high level of education of its population, its openness and its consensus building system, Tunisia is in a position to succeed in its democratic transition process and to establish a democratic regime based on good governance and the rule of law.
Political, economic and social challenges remain high. Building consensus on the political level, fostering stability and security, tackling a high rate of unemployment and uneven regional development, boosting investment and economic recovery, and managing social unease, are the main concerns of the country.
Tunisia now is an export-oriented country in the process of liberalizing, privatizing the economy and boosting investment. A new investment code is under way that would promote the private initiative and give new incentives to local and foreign investors.
The Tunisian economy ranges from agriculture, mining, manufacturing, and petroleum products, to tourism. The industrial sector is mainly made up of manufacturing textile products, car parts, and electric machinery. Although Tunisia managed an average 5% growth over the last decade it continues to suffer from a high unemployment rate especially among youth.
In 2009, the country was ranked the most competitive economy in Africa and the 40th in the world by the World Economic Forum. Many international companies such as Airbus established there their production units. Tourism accounted for 7% of GDP and 370,000 jobs in the same year.
Tunisia is a prominent and popular tourist destination in the Mediterranean region ranking among the first thirty destinations worldwide. It receives annually about seven million tourists. It offers a diversity of tourist attractions and a particularly competitive infrastructure. Tunisia is a safe destination, a heaven of peace and development in an ever changing world. Improving service quality, promoting an adequate investment climate, creating innovative services, establishing high standard units, managing training programs for skilled professionals and targeting a ten million tourist entries per year, are the main priorities of the tourism sector.
Popular tourist attractions are golden beaches, a wide array of heath and wellness resorts, golf sites desert hotel resorts, and also famous archaeological sites . Tunisia ranks among the best destinations for heath and wellness in the world. In 2012, 61 thousand Dutch tourists chose Tunisia as their favourite destination. The aim is to reach one hundred thousand Dutch visitors per year.
There are nine civil airports in Tunisia, among them Tunis-Carthage Airport and Djerba–Zarzis International Airports being the most important ones. the new airport, Enfidha International Airport, opened in 2011. Plans to build logistic sites for land and sea transport are under way.
As far as energy is concerned, there are plans for two nuclear power stations, to be operational by 2020. Both facilities are projected to produce 900–1000 MW. The Desertec project is a large-scale energy project aimed at installing solar power panels in Tunisia and other north African countries and make power line connections with Europe.
The European Union is Tunisia’s first trading partner, currently accounting for about 70% of Tunisian imports and 75% of Tunisian exports. It is one of the European Union’s most established trading partners in the Mediterranean region ranking as the EU’s 30th largest trading partner. It was the first Mediterranean country to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, in July 1995. Before the date of entry came into force, Tunisia started dismantling tariffs on bilateral EU trade and achieved the tariffs dismantling for industrial products in 2008 and was thus the first Mediterranean country to enter in a free trade area with the EU.
With the Netherlands, Tunisia has developed fruitful cooperation relations. During the second half of the last century Netherlands was among the most important developing partners of Tunisia. After the revolution, the Government of the Netherlands was one of the first European countries to extend their support to the transition process in Tunisia. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs Uri Rosenthal, paid an official visit to Tunis in may 2011. In the framework of the Community of Democracies, Netherlands took the co-presidency of its task force for Tunisia.
Foreign Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans, paid in June 2013, an official visit to Tunisia. He met with senior government officials expressing his support to the democratic transition process.
Confirming its commitment to the protection and further development of the freedom of expression, the Government of Tunisia co-organised, in close cooperation with the “Freedom Online Coalition”, the third conference “Freedon online, Tunis 2013” in Tunis, from June 16th to 18th, 2013, with the attendance of 400 representatives.
From the outset of its revolution, Tunisia has stressed its commitment to international law and international justice as pillars of peace and security in the world, and adhered in June 22nd, 2011 to the International Criminal Court, actively contributing to the success of its work. Fatou Bensouda, the Prosecutor of the Court paid recently an official visit to Tunisia, and met with senior Government officials in order to further strengthen cooperation relations between the two sides. On this occasion, meetings were also organized with representatives of civil society, the Bar and the Judiciary.
Tunisia has constantly stressed its commitment to disarmament and non-proliferation of mass destruction arms such as chemical weapons, and contributes actively to the OPCW`s cooperation, assistance and protection programs. In this framework, the Government of Tunisia hosted the third international Assistance and Protection Exercise (ASSISTEX 3), in Tunis, October 11th -15th,2010 with the participation of more than 400 specialists from 11 States Parties. It was an exercise aiming to increase awareness and preparation in providing assistance and protection in case of a terrorist attack with chemical weapons against civilians.
On the domestic level, Tunisia is to lay the foundations of a republican regime based on democracy, human rights and human dignity and, plays a positive and active role on the bilateral, regional and multilateral levels in order to contribute to building and strengthening trust, cooperation relations and mutual understanding. Furthermore, Tunisia gives a particular interest to the restitution of ill-gotten assets looted and smuggled abroad by corrupt members of the ancient regime and their extradition.
Economic diplomacy is getting an increasing interest. In the framework of supporting national efforts in attracting foreign investment contributing to the creation of new job opportunities for young people, and the further development of the interior regions of the country, Tunisia is boosting its economic advantages made up mainly of skilled workers, an attracting legal and cost effective business environment and many government incentives designed to promote business activity. A new investment code is under way aiming to further consolidate and protect investments and thus manage a climate of trust for local and foreign investors.