Tunisia emerged from the Ottoman Empire as one of the most liberal and human rights-friendly countries, having banned slavery in 1846, the first in the Muslim world to do so. Tunisia adopted this abolition two years before France, 19 years before abolition in the United States (1865), 42 years before Brazil (1888) and 116 years before Saudi Arabia (1962). – Journal of Democracy (Alfred Stepan, 2012).
Tunisia was a part of the Ottoman Empire from 1580 until the imposition of the French Protectorate in 1881 and shared strong links to the old Muslim kingdom of Andalusia in southern Spain. During that period, Tunis had become a preferred destination for Muslim and Jewish emigrants. These emigrants brought from Spain such extensive high-level experience in governing and administration that many of them, for centuries, filled high posts under the Hafsid Dynasty (1229–1574). - Journal of Democracy (Alfred Stepan, 2012).
Tunisia adopted the first written constitution in Arab History (1861), a constitution that, according to French social scientist Jean-Pierre Filiu “enshrined a political power distinct from religion: Islam was barely mentioned, only to stress that the text was not contradicting of (Islam’s) principles”. - Journal of Democracy (Alfred Stepan, 2012).
According to Alfred Stepan of Columbia University, in Tunisia “as early as 2003, secular and religious opposition activists were agreeing on a common program for ‘the day after Ben Ali’ that to some extent drew upon their shared useable past to imagine a democratic future. With secularists agreeing that Islamists could participate fully in democratic politics, and Islamists agreeing that popular sovereignty is the only source of legitimacy, Tunisia was surprisingly well situated to make a good showing at the work of democratic transition when the moment to undertake that work came around.” – Journal of Democracy (Alfred Stepan, 2012).
According to Alfred Stepan of Columbia University, “Tunisia has a long intellectual and educational tradition that combines important secular and spiritual elements. Nineteenth-century Tunisia played a pioneering role in building constitutional and state structures that were religiously neutral and rights-enhancing, and it was home to politically engaged Islamic thinkers who argued for a more rights-based reading of Islam, especially in the area of rights for women.” - Journal of Democracy (Alfred Stepan 2012).
With a literacy rate of close to 80% and with over 3% of the population attending a university or college (2011), Tunisia stands as one of the most advanced countries in MENA in terms of education. - Mondher Ben Ayed – “The Dynamics for Transition in Tunisia and Their Implications on the Economy, June 2013.”
A May 2014 report by the World Bank described the scale of ‘state capture’ in Tunisia under former President Ben Ali as: “extraordinary—by the end of 2010 some 220 firms connected to Ben Ali and his extended family were capturing an astounding 21% of all private sector profits annually in Tunisia (or US$233 million, corresponding to over 0.5% of GDP). “ In addition, Tunisian banks funded these businesses to the tune of 2.5% of GDP (the equivalent of 5% of all financing by the Tunisian banking sector in 2011). The World Bank report goes on to say, “that such a small group of 114 people could appropriate such a large share of Tunisia’s wealth creation illustrates how corruption has been synonymous with social exclusion.” – ‘The Unfinished Revolution – Bringing Opportunity, Good Jobs and Greater Wealth To All Tunisians’, Development Policy Review, The World Bank, May 2014.
According to the World Bank, the cost of international telephone calls to and from Tunisia in 2013 was one of the most expensive in the world, over 10 times international market prices, and on par only with countries such as Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo. – ‘The Unfinished Revolution – Bringing Opportunity, Good Jobs and Greater Wealth To All Tunisians’, Development Policy Review, The World Bank, May 2014.
The Tunisian private sector is dominated by small, sub-scale and relatively un-productive firms, according to a recent World Bank report. One of the explanations for these findings is that “firms used to try and stay ‘below the radar screen’ to minimize the risk of predation from the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clan. More generally these findings reflect the numerous barriers and distorted incentives facing the private sector.” – ‘The Unfinished Revolution – Bringing Opportunity, Good Jobs and Greater Wealth To All Tunisians’, Development Policy Review, The World Bank, May 2014.
Prior to the 2011 revolution, Tunisia scored very poorly on indicators of public sector accountability and the rule of law. For example, the country scored 48/100 on Global Integrity’s score on ‘Corruption and the Rule of Law’, and 17/100 on their ‘Government Accountability’ score in 2010. Rather than a high cost of capital or a lack of access to other factor inputs, according to the World Bank, under the Ben Ali regime, “the lack of effective institutions to ensure public sector accountability, the rule of law, and checks and balances on power……resulted in weak protection of property rights, barriers to entry and competition, and high costs and risks of corruption.” – ‘The Unfinished Revolution – Bringing Opportunity, Good Jobs and Greater Wealth To All Tunisians’, Development Policy Review, The World Bank, May 2014.
The World Bank’s annual ‘Doing Business’ survey placed Tunisia 110th in the world in overall labor market flexibility (2010) and 181st out of 183 countries in the flexibility of dismissing workers (2012). A number of structural impediments contributed to this poor ranking. First, payroll tax rates for firms serving the domestic Tunisian market approached 30% of payroll. Even without including the 9.18% contributed by workers, this as a share of profits is one of the highest rates vs. comparator countries. Second, the lack of flexibility in the labor market, particularly regarding open-ended contracts, raises the costs and risks of employing workers, and in turn reduces the demand for labor. Finally, according to the World Bank, “centrally negotiated wages may protect certain workers, but where they are higher than labor productivity in a given firm, they decrease demand for employees.” Firms surveyed in the most recent World competitiveness survey reported a low relationship between pay and productivity (with a rank of 81 out of 143 countries) and a relatively low degree of flexibility in wage determination (119th in the world. - ‘The Unfinished Revolution – Bringing Opportunity, Good Jobs and Greater Wealth To All Tunisians’, Development Policy Review, The World Bank, May 2014.
According to the African Development Bank, in the three decades between 1980 and 2010, Tunisia grew at almost exactly the same average rate as Turkey, but maintained a more stable growth path. Tunisia also grew much faster than Jordan and Romania over this period, although growth in those comparator countries accelerated over the past decade following a collapse in growth in the mid-1980s. – ‘Towards a New Economic Model for Tunisia – Identifying Tunisia’s Binding Constraints to Broad-Based Growth’, The African Development Bank, 2013.
"At this moment when so much has gone off course in the region, it is only fair to note that (Tunisia) where it (the Arab spring) all began has taken important steps toward addressing its past of abuse and first steps toward a future where rights will be respected. These efforts have begun to bear fruit with the adoption, on December 15, of a transitional justice law. This historic legislation was adopted following an extensive consultative process, which was admirably conducted throughout the entire country, including the hinterlands, and among all groups; it was not left to elites in Tunis. The law provides for a comprehensive set of measures, including a Truth and Dignity Commission, special judicial chambers to address human rights violations; and reparations to victims through a Fund for the Dignity and Rehabilitation of Victims of Tyranny." (Three Years Since Revolution, Tunisia Seeks to Reckon With Difficult Past, David Tolbert, President, International Center for Transitional Justice. The Huffington Post, January 14, 2014)
"For Tunisians, the goals of (their Jasmin revolution) were primarily freedom and economic prosperity. Even though they are disillusioned by current political leaders and believe that the difference between the rich and poor expanded since the overthrow of the authoritarian ruler, Zein al-Abedin Ben Ali, in early 2011, Tunisians consider themselves to be more empowered and freer than they were before the revolution." (The Birthplace of the Arab Spring: Values and Perceptions of Tunisians, Mansoor Moaddel, Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland, December 15, 2013)
With the adoption of a new constitution by an overwhelming majority of the Constituent Assembly on January 26, 2014, Tunisia has taken a major step on the road to political stability. The constitution decentralizes governance, guarantees freedom of speech except for a proviso that bans attacks against Islam, the state religion, while also banning accusations of apostasy. It further guarantees the right to healthcare, and to freedom from discrimination, and extends significant new rights to women, including protections from violence, the right to decide on matters of marriage and divorce, and the right to equality with men in the workplace. As such, the constitution is potentially a good framework to launch the urgent reforms needed to tackle the endemic social and economic ills that Tunisia endured for too long, and deal with the new dangers arising from the spread of radical salafist influence both in Tunisia and the region. (Hussein Hammami)
"What we see today in Tunisia is a persistent and continued effort from all political stakeholders that have joined into the transition to reach agreement on the future nature of rule emerging from nearly six decades of undemocratic rule. And, in the sometimes dysfunctional and most times ad hoc process of deciding Tunisia’s political future, we can be encouraged that Tunisia’s transition reveals the raw beginnings of an emerging democratic culture, one of bare knuckles negotiation, horse trading and brinksmanship and yet, a culture made ever stronger by each moment of crisis diverted." (Testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, Scott Mastic, Director, Middle East and North Africa, International Republican Institute, December 4, 2013)
Tunisia’s demography is characterized by a high concentration in the middle part of the population pyramid with ages 15-29 representing 29% of the total population and ages 30-59 representing 37% in 2009. The number of children-per-woman has decreased from 6 during the 1960s to 3.4 in 1994, and to 2.05 in 2009, the lowest rate in the Arab world. (AFDB, Tunisia: Economic and Social Challenges Beyond the Revolution)
Substantial resources were devoted to promoting innovation and research in Tunisia in the last decade, with numerous technology parks, important subsidy programs, and tax breaks. However, even though 1.3% of GDP went to R&D in 2009, only 26 international patents were registered. Likewise, Tunisia had one of the lowest shares of high-tech industries (5.4% in 2009, compared to 11.5% in Jordan). As documented in the World Bank’s (2010) development policy review on Tunisia, these unsatisfactory outcomes were largely due to governance constraints, such as the censorship of the Internet and foreign publications. (World Bank)
The Tunisian service sector has high growth and job creation potential, but its exports are largely dominated by the low performing tourism sector. The service sector accounts for 46% of GDP and absorbs 49% of employment (2010). The development of this sector is hampered by heavy regulation and by the domestic market oriented policy. Data from the World Tourism Organization (WTO) show that the average per capita spending of tourists coming to Tunisia does not exceed $385, the lowest among all touristic destinations on the Mediterranean coast. Average per capita spending for tourists visiting Morocco is $725, while it is $770 in Turkey, $890 in Egypt, and $1000 in Greece. (AFDB, Tunisia: Economic and Social Challenges Beyond the Revolution, World Tourism Organization (WTO))
The (Tunisian) offshore regime provides generous benefits to investors: duty-free imports of raw materials and equipment, free repatriation of profits, and 10 year tax holidays. Nevertheless, there is a very limited link between the offshore and onshore sectors. The limited level of foreign partnerships in the onshore sector, and more broadly in Tunisian manufacturing industries, is due to the low integration level of onshore industry to the global economy, thus limiting the technology spillover effects of the competitive export-oriented sector to the rest of economy. (AFDB, Tunisia: Economic and Social Challenges Beyond the Revolution)
According to the most recent Global Competitiveness Index from the World Economic Forum, the Tunisian labor market has failed to efficiently marshal its young talent to create jobs and growth. A seemingly concise diagnosis, but, when unpacked, it reveals a few phenomena that have combined for the perfect storm of youth unemployment: a gap between labor supply and demand, a prohibitively rigid labor market, and lingering cultural assumptions about self-employment and entrepreneurship. Out of 138 countries, Tunisia ranked 83rd in overall competitiveness. But its score for labor market efficiency tells a much darker story: Tunisia’s labor market was ranked 132 out of 138. (CIPE Development Blog, Margaret Bohlander, 18 November, 2013)
For many years, Tunisia has been developing its phosphate processing industry to produce phosphoric acid and fertilizers, becoming the world’s second largest producer and leading exporter of trisodium phosphate (TSP), with 21.7% of global production and 31.2% of global exports. (African Development Bank)
Prior to the Jasmin Revolution, the Tunisian banking system played a key role in supporting government policy through government-backed loans to state-owned enterprises, but was progressively affected by the asset predation of the former president’s entourage. It is estimated that about 7% of banking loans were granted to the companies controlled by the former president’s extended family and entourage. (AFDB, Tunisia: Economic and Social Challenges Beyond the Revolution)