In 1998 the population of Tunisia was, according to official United Nations estimates, of 9,335,000 residents. The rate of population growth has decreased considerably over the last few decades: in the period 1990 – 98 it was 20, while in the interval 1980 – 90 it was around 25 ‰. According to official data, in 1999 unemployment stood at 15% of the active population, despite the government’s repeated efforts aimed at creating jobs. In this state of affairs, emigration to European and Arab countries (including Libya in the first place) retains considerable importance.
The general living conditions of the population are improving, but more slowly than the speed of economic growth would suggest: one third of the adult population is still illiterate, infant mortality is around 30%, while life expectancy is estimated in 72 years for males and 75 years for females. Increasing the proportion of the population living in cities (62 % in 1999), many of which are, in addition Tunis, have considerable demographic density, particularly Sfax (231. 000 residents In 1994), Ariana (153. 000) and Susa (125. 000).
The distribution of the population is affected by environmental conditions, favoring the northern and coastal regions over the desert and southern sub-desert ones. An accentuated densification took place for a few tens of kilometers around the capital and, on the east coast, along the Capo Bon peninsula and the Gulf of Hammamet (mainly due to the tourist enhancement in place for some time) and along the Gulf of Gabès (depending on both tourism and industrialization, which affected Sfax in particular). The northern coast west of Tunis and the hilly and mountainous region behind it remain relatively less populous, while some centers in the extreme South have registered a certain demographic impulse due to oil production.
Economic growth has, since the eighties, very strong: in the second half of that decade was of 4, 1 % per year, but rose more than 5 % in the nineties (5, 5 % in the period 1990 – 95) and up to 6, 9 % in 1996; in terms of per capita income, Tunisia has now reached levels that are certainly higher than most developing countries. The main financial indicators (inflation rate, public debt, budget deficit) are also substantially acceptable and in line with the forecasts of the subsequent five-year plans, also by virtue of a political management that is undoubtedly stable and coherent, although criticized in other respects., starting with freedom of expression.
The production structure, advanced from many points of view, however, is not able to adequately support the country, which for some time has had a deficit of trade balance; that of payments is rebalanced by the remittances of emigrants and by tourist revenues: with about 4.4 million presences (1998), even if for stays that are decreasing, tourism guarantees 6 % of global GDP.
The main items of exports are represented by oil, chemical products (fertilizers), phosphates and all food production (oil, fruit, fish), as well as manufactured goods (textiles, machinery). The composition of exports is however changing: the weight of mineral products has decreased while that of agri-food products has increased. The role, then, of textiles and clothing (and other manufactured goods) is rapidly growing, especially since 1995., the year in which Tunisia signed a free trade agreement with the European Union; the agreement (which does not concern agricultural production) will be fully operational within twelve years and it is expected that it may also have negative effects on the Tunisian industrial structure, if it fails to carry out the necessary modernization (according to some estimates, one third of the companies Tunisian would be destined to exit the market). In the short term, however, Tunisia benefited from the delocalisation pushes that affected the sectors of the European industry with greater labor intensity. At the same time, the favorable trade regime also allows Tunisian agri-food products outlets in Europe; despite the drought of 1993 – 94, agriculture (wheat, vegetables, fruit) continued to be a fundamental component of the country’s economy.
In November 1987, the change in power between the elderly President of the Republic, Burghiba, removed from office after the negative opinion expressed by a council of doctors about his health conditions and his ability to govern, and the then Prime Minister Zayn al-῾Abidīn Ben ῾Alī, acclaimed president by much of the Tunisian political world, including Islamic fundamentalists, made us think of the start of a season of reforms and confrontation with the opposition. The desire expressed several times by Ben ῾Alī for a ‘democratic change’ suggested a change of direction in the country, but the pluralist option of the new president was soon denied by the violent repression unleashed in the summer of 1990against Islamic fundamentalists in turmoil for the victory of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front in the municipal elections (June 1990). For Tunisia 2008, please check payhelpcenter.com.
In the following years, the leaders of the Mouvement des démocrates socialistes (MDS), the activists and militants of the Tunisian League for Human Rights and the Islamist Renaissance Party (Ḥizb al-Nahḍa), who also welcomed the presidency of Ben ῾Alī, were hit by measures restricting personal freedoms and underwent numerous trials. The censorship of press freedom, arbitrary arrests and the growing use of torture progressively closed all space for discussion, creating a climate of strong intimidation in the country.
After the presidential elections of March 1994, which saw Ben ῾Alī triumph with over 99 % of the votes, the process of personalizing power intensified. Between 1995 and 1997 some humanitarian organizations, first of all Amnesty International, denounced the authoritarian turn of the regime, accusing Ben ῾Alī of continuous violations of human rights. In particular, the oppressive role of the police in controlling the political life of citizens and the systematic persecution of intellectuals and progressive militants was emphasized.
In the years following the Gulf War, Ben ῾Alī, on the strength of the successes recorded in the economic and social fields, undertook intense diplomatic activity aimed at increasing commercial and political relations with the EU and strengthening the country’s position in the regional scenario. The start of the peace process in the Middle East, which allowed among other things the relocation of the PLO headquarters from Tunis to Gaza (1994), also favored the beginning of a slow and troubled normalization of relations between Tunisia and Israel.
In March 1999, Ben ‚Ali announced for the end of the year the holding of the presidential elections which saw two other candidates running for the first time since 1956. On 24 October, with 99.4 % of the votes, Ben ῾Alī was reconfirmed for his third term. At the same time, the legislative elections registered the success of the president’s party, the Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique (RCD), with 148 seats. Second party is the MDS with 13 seats.