The triumph of pragmatism.

Author:Versi, Anver
Position:Special Report: Tunisia - Tunisia

In eleven short years under the readership of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has been transformed into a modern economic powerhouse. It is now poised to join the ranks of the developed world.

Tunisia, sandwiched between its physically massive neighbours, Libya and Algeria, may be small in size but it packs a more powerful economic punch than any other country in the southern Mediterranean. This north-African country, once the seat of arguably the greatest city-state of antiquity, Carthage, is once again poised to become the hub around which the trade of three worlds, European, Arab and African, will revolve.

By the year 2008, barring unforeseeable obstacles, Tunisia will have moved up its weight class from 'emerging economy' status to 'developed nation' status. It will open its borders to free trade with the increasing powerful European Union block. This will give it access to a high-income market of over 350m people.

Tunisia's remarkable transformation from a lower middle-income country into an economic dynamo has taken just 10 years. What makes Tunisia's success even more impressive is that it does not possess any valuable natural resource such as oil or minerals; and half the country consists of desert. Unlike South East Asian economies, it does not have a large industrious population to give it a competitive edge and yet it comes second to Mauritius as the most competitive country in Africa. Over 30% of the population is under 16 years of age, yet the per capita income, at $2,224, with a purchasing power parity of nearly $5,100, is one of the highest in Africa. Some 80% of households own their own homes and the middle class forms 60% of the population. Few African or Arab countries have so many women in such high professional positions as does Tunisia.

Yet, a little more than a decade ago, the idea that Tunisia could make such strides in so many areas in such a short time would have been laughed out of court.

The country's first President, Habib Bourguiba, who set the foundations for a modern Tunisian state, was 80 years old and his mental faculties were failing him. The entire region was being rocked by conflicting ideologies and swept by fundamentalist winds. The government of the day decided to take a pragmatic course and Habib Bourguiba was retired. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, then the Prime Minister and constitutionally-ordained successor, took over the Presidency on 7 November 1987. This is referred to even today in...

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