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French Version

Tunisia marks 50 years of independence

Mediterranean state hailed for economic dynamism, criticized over rights issues

Tunisia celebrates 50 years of independence from France Monday with a mixed record, hailed for its economic dynamism but under fire over human rights issues. This Mediterranean state of 10 million can point to sustained growth, 4.2 percent last year and 6 percent forecast for 2006, and is often cited as a model of social progress.

"Our country has always relied on its human resources as the way forward to all development," said Economic Minister Mohammad Nouri Jouini.

Tunisia became independent of France on March 20, 1956.

It achieved a positive international image when the father of independence President Habib Bourguiba made women's rights a major feature of his plan to create a modern, pro-Western state which, through mass education, today boasts a 77 percent literacy rate.

Tunisia became the first - and as yet only - Arab and Muslim country to apply a code of personal status, banning polygamy tolerated elsewhere in Islamic states.

The traditional right of a husband to repudiate his wife was suppressed and the way opened to women's education, freedom of choice of marriage partner, civil marriage and legally authorized divorce.

Equality of the sexes, including the right to vote and to paid employment, is enshrined in the Constitution.

Currently seven women serve in government and a quarter of the national assembly are women, as are a third of the bench, 40 percent of university-level teachers and more than half the country's 330,000 students.

Most Tunisians remain loyal to the code of personal status that came into force in August 1956 - a particularly significant fact with the resurfacing of Islamic fundamentalism.

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali called on fellow-citizens this month to form a "solid rampart against extremist currents."

Tunisia has admirers in the West, including the U.S. for its social and economic progress, despite its relative lack of natural resources compared to oil-wealthy neighbors Libya and Algeria.

However, stories of political repression have become more and more frequent in recent years.

The rights group Amnesty International has listed Tunisia with China and Vietnam among countries that "continue to imprison opponents, persecute journalists and even punish ordinary Internet users."

The U.S. said last November it was disappointed that the Tunisian government had been unable to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression and assembly in Tunisia during a UN summit in Tunis.

The U.S. delegation at the World Summit on the Information Society said in a statement that Tunisia, as host, "was called upon to demonstrate that it strongly upholds and promotes the right to freedom of opinion and expression necessary to promote the building of the global information society and ensure a successful second phase of the world summit."

"We are therefore obliged to express our disappointment that the government of Tunisia did not take advantage of this important opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression and assembly in Tunisia," it added.

The Tunisian government answers foreign criticism by saying it is fighting terrorism and wants to preserve a progressive social model in the face of Islamic fundamentalism.

Tunisia introduced a multi-party system more than 20 years ago, but Ben Ali dominates public institutions and political life and the opposition is weak.

Economically the country has moved from a system of nationalized industry to free market enterprise, turning it into one of the most developed countries of the region.

Following the failure of a short-lived Socialist experiment in the 1960s, Prime Minister Hedi Nouira liberalized the economy during the 1970s.

The country underwent a social and economic crisis at the start of the 1980s, then in 1986 adopted a program of structural adjustment at the recommendation of the IMF, accelerating reforms following the signing of an association accord in 1995 with the European Union.

Tourism is a main contributor to the country's wealth, with six million foreign visitors annually bringing in the main source of foreign currency.

Yet high unemployment remains a major social problem, with an endemic rate of 14 percent.

Tunis,03 21 2006
The Daily Star
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