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Tunisia

Sekondi Accra

On December 17, 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a popular 26 year-old fruit and vegetable street vendor was publically humilated by police woman Fedya Hamdi and her fellow officers. Distraught, Bouazizi tried to seek recourse. He went to the local municipality building and demanded a meeting with an official. He was told it would not be possible and that the official was in a meeting. With no official willing to hear his grievances, the young man bought paint fuel, returned to the street outside the building, and set himself on fire. Public unrest followed the immolation. By early January 2011, the political heat from the flames literally drove then president of 22 years Zine El Abdine Ben Ali from office. On July 5, 2011 he was convicted, in absentia, to a 15 1/2-year prison sentence on charges related to artifacts, illegal drugs and weapons found in his palace. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi had assumed the reigns of government on January 14, 2011. However, he angered protesters and some of his new cabinet by selecting several members of the Bouazizi cabinet and was forced to resign leadership also. Fouad Mebazaa, as interim president, has said an interim government would manage the transition to democracy until a representative council is elected in July 2011 to rewrite the constitution.

Before the so-called Tunisian Revolution the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stated that economic growth would rebound back to 4.8% in 2011 after falling to 3.8% in 2010. Will Tunisia be able to keep its competitive edge by continuing its infrastructure? The government had plans to construct a pipeline to Libya and an electricity transmission cable to Italy. The Rades-La Goulette Bridge, which was completed in March 2009, has opened up new areas around the capital, while the new airport at Enfidha had expanded the country's tourism infrastructure before the revolution.

Structural problems need to be rectified if Tunisia wants to attain higher growth rates and decrease unemployment among its younger population (under 25), which reached 35% under former president Ben Ali. Tunisia was rated 32nd out of 133 countries by the 2010-11 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report after slipping to 40th place in 2009-10.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, too much of the economy is concentrated in unskilled and labor intensive industries. There is an opportunity to move beyond assembly and up the value chain to design and conception, but this requires an overhaul of the education system and improved coordination between the public sector, workers, research and financial institutions. Economic diversification was slowly taking place under Ben Ali but the wealth was concentrated among the elite classes. In the information and communications sectors, which was set to account for 15.5% of GDP by 2012, more competition arrived in 2010 in the shape of Divona-Orange, the third national telecom operator.

Even before the Tunisian Revolution, some opposition parties were uniting to petition the government for greater political reform. They include the Forum Democratique pour la Liberte et le Traval, Mouvement Ettajdid and Parti du Travail Patriotique et Democratique. Tunisia is also wary of a decade of violence in neighboring Algeria after the government prevented Islamists from taking office. Much of the intimidation attributed to Tunisia's police and security services was linked to a determination not to let radical Islam take root. Before his abrupt ouster, Ben Ali was trying to engage with Muslims. He brought the banned Ennahdha movement on board by allowing some key members to return from exile.

Before the Tunisian protests, Mohamed Sakhr El Materi, the son in law of Ben Ali, had entered the politico-religious arena, purchasing an Islamic bank, as well as an Islamic radio station with plans of developing a TV station. Political analysts saw those moves as an attempt to garner favor with conservatives in the presidential palace with plans on a future political office and also as a way of reaching out to marginalised Islamists. He was considered by some to have been a possible successor of Ben Ali as president of Tunisia. However, in light of recent events, that is no longer an option for him.

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Tunisia's embassy in the United States is located at 1515 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20005 (tel. 1-202-862-1850, fax 1-202-862-1858).
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