Explainer: Tunisia: Land at a crossroads

  • Image: Protesters chant slogans against President Zine El Abidine Ben Aliin during a demonstration in Tunis
    Christophe Ena  /  AP
    Protesters chant slogans against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during a demonstrations.

    Protests that forced former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee Tunisia on Jan. 14 have sparked uprisings across the Arab world, including in Libya where rebels are trying to fend off an offensive by veteran leader Moammar Gadhafi.

    Authorities ordered a curfew in a central mining town amid simmering unrest following a bout of deadly clashes between police and protesters. It's the latest sign of Tunisia's struggle to restore stability after a revolution that deposed the autocratic leader and sparked uprisings throughout the Arab world.

    Here's a look at key players and issues surrounding Tunisia.

  • Nation glance

    Christophe Ena  /  AP
    Supporters of Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali demonstrate in Tunis, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011.

    Pent-up anger at unemployment and at a leadership many see as controlling and corrupt has exploded into protests and clashes with police over the past few months. The following is insight into a nation of 10.5 million people.

  • Country details

    Capital: Tunis.

    People: Population estimated around 10.5 million. Constitution recognizes Islam as state religion, but government supports a secular society. Official language is Arabic, but French iand Berber (Tamazight) are also spoken.

    Geography: Bounded by the Mediterranean to north and east, Algeria to west, Libya to southeast. Covers 63,000 square miles, about the size of the state of Georgia. The south is mostly semi-arid or desert.

    Politics: Habib Bourguiba ruled from independence in 1956 to Nov. 7, 1987, when overthrown in bloodless coup at age 84 by Gen. Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, ex-interior minister. Ben Ali was re-elected in 2009 for a fifth term with 89 percent of the vote.

    Media: Tightly controlled. The first independent radio station began broadcasting on Nov. 7, 2003 — the 16th anniversary of Ben Ali's rise to power. Video-sharing sites such as YouTube or Daily Motion are censored. Facebook is widely used.

    Human rights: The government tolerates little public dissent. Amnesty International said in a 2010 report that authorities infiltrate and harass human rights organizations and groups of dissenters. Human Rights Watch says authorities keep tight control over unions. Critics maintain that e-mail is surveyed.

    History: Seat of Carthaginian empire destroyed by Rome in 146 B.C., later conquered by Arabs and Turks, then made French protectorate in 1883. Nationalist aspirations bolstered during World War II, guerrilla warfare in 1952. Tunisia became independent on March 20, 1956.

    (Source: The Associated Press and Reuters)

  • Economy

    Tourism is a major source of foreign exchange, representing over 11 percent of hard currency receipts ($2.57 billion), as well as an important sector for employment. In 2009, 6.9 million tourists visited Tunisia, largely from Europe and other parts of North Africa.

    Growth: Tunisia aims to achieve 5.4 percent economic growth in 2011, up from a projected 3.7 percent in 2010, restoring growth to levels before the global financial crisis.

    Debt: The government also plans to borrow around 3.8 billion dinars ($2.7 billion) in 2011 to cover the budget deficit and reimburse 2.3 billion dinars in public debt, according to the 2011 draft budget.

    Budget: Spending is projected to rise to 19.2 billion dinars ($13.6 billion) from the 18.3 billion dinars projected in the 2010 budget.

    The budget deficit will therefore be contained at 2.5 percent of (2011) GDP while public debt will be reduced to 39 percent of GDP compared with respectively 2.6 percent and 39.8 percent projected for 2010, the draft said.

    (Source: Reuters and The Associated Press)

  • Investments

    Until the wave of anti-government protests broke out, Tunisia had a reputation for being open and welcoming to tourism and foreign investment.

    Here are details of some recent foreign corporate investment deals in Tunisia:

    June 2009: Tunisia awarded an oil and gas exploration permit to Austria's OMV and Al-Thani of the United Arab Emirates, Tunisian state news agency TAP reported.

    They will join state-owned Entreprise Tunisienne des Activites Petrolieres (ETAP) under a production-sharing deal in which they will spend $3 million on exploration. The agreement covers 6,592 square kilometers near the southern town of Gabes. December 2009 - Belgian building company CFE said it had paid 5 million euros ($7.4 million) for a 25 percent stake in Bizerte Cap 3000, operator of a Tunisian marina.

    Under the deal CFE will build 270 apartments and 16,000 square meters of commercial real estate and services for the marina for a total 47 million euros. The marina is due to have 700 berths for yachts.

    November 2010: Construction and engineering company SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. said it had won a $340 million contract to build a gas-powered power plant in Tunisia.

    It will work with partner Ansaldo Energia, based in Genoa, to build the 420-megawatt plant for the Tunisian power utility STEG.

    December 2010: Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding announced it had been selected, together with Taisei Corp, to conduct a feasibility study on a demonstration project for solar thermal power generation in Tunisia.

    It aims to build a tower-type concentrated solar power plant (CSP) with 5 megawatts capacity in El Borma in southern Tunisia. The two companies will assess the introduction effects, environmental impact, viability and effectiveness of Tunisia's first combined-cycle power plant integrating a tower-design solar thermal power generator and a gas-turbine generator, and submit a report by June 2011.

    December 2010: Tunisian Cement Company signed an agreement with "Clean Development Projects Limited," a London-based company specializing in the promotion and facilitation of sustainability in energy, to develop a 500,000 hectare bio-energy plantation in Tunisia.

    The oil produced from the plantation will be used to power cement plants in Tunisia.

    January 2011: OMV has agreed to buy U.S.-based Pioneer Natural Resources' Tunisian units for $866 million as the Austrian energy group expands North African operations that have become a core business.

    The deal adds immediate production capacity, significant scope for exploration and development, and opportunities to boost efficiency because the sites adjoin OMV's existing Tunisian fields, it said.

    (Sources: Reuters/All Africa)

  • Road map

    Interim Tunisian President Fouad Mebazza speaks during a news conference in Tunis
    Str  /  REUTERS
    Interim Tunisian President Fouad Mebazza.

    Tunisia's interim authorities have determined a roadmap for the transition, but it may not be enough to restore stability.

    Interim President Fouad Mebazza called an election on July 24 to choose a constituent assembly that will rewrite the constitution, and a new caretaker government -- the third since Ben Ali was toppled -- is due to be unveiled.

    The existing constitution, widely regarded as a corrupt vestige of Ben Ali's 23-year rule, is all but defunct and parliament has been effectively dissolved.

    Still, many questions remain unanswered.

  • Why?

    Q: Why is the election of a constituent assembly important?

    A: By setting an election date, Mebazza has removed a degree of uncertainty, putting a time limit to the mandate of the interim government after a turbulent week in which six ministers quit.

    He also signaled a clear break with the past -- as demanded by the protesters -- by saying that the rules of the political game needed to be redrawn from scratch. A new constitution is regarded as a vital step towards creating a proper multi-party system and paving the way for democratic elections.

    That however will take time -- up to two years, according to Slaheddin Jourchi, a political analyst in Tunis.

    (Source: Reuters)

  • Will it last?

    Q: Will the interim government last?

    A: Interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi was appointed after his predecessor, Mohamed Ghannouchi, resigned following street unrest over his close ties to Ben Ali. Caid Sebsi, 84, announced that he will name a new government, and said his priority was to restore security and relaunch the economy.

    The new administration is likely to be purged of former Ben Ali allies and be made up of technocrats. As ministers will not be allowed to be candidates in future elections, opposition leaders have little interest in joining the cabinet.

    "The interim government will remain on shaky grounds, a figurehead administration with its hands tied and under close scrutiny from both the protesters and the opposition," said Gala Riani, Middle East analyst at IHS Global Insight.

    (Source: Reuters and The Associated Press)

  • Protesters

    Q: How are the protesters reacting?

    A: Demonstrators who have been staging sit-ins in the Kasbah area of Tunis, near the seat of government, have greeted the latest announcements as a victory of the popular revolt.

    They are clamoring for real change fast, and they face a long wait before reaping concrete benefits from their revolt.

    (Sources: Reuters/All Africa)

  • Military

    Q: What is the role of the military?

    A: It is closely watching the situation, as shown by the presence of the chief of staff of the armed forces, Rachid Ammar, at the prime minister's first news conference on Friday.

    By refusing to shoot on the protesters and ditching Ben Ali, Tunisia's military has risen considerably in popularity and presented itself as a champion of the revolt.

    The relatively small army was a pillar of Ben Ali's rule but has developed a reputation as a professional institution and, unlike its counterparts in Egypt and other Arab countries, has no organic link with the political system.

    However, analysts and some opposition politicians say there is a risk that the military may step in, albeit reluctantly, if the new interim government does not prove more effective than its predecessors.

    (Source: Reuters)

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