|GDP real growth rate (%)||5.0||6.2||5.8|
|Total Exports (US$bn)||5.92||5.78||6.70|
|Total Imports (US$bn)||8.59||8.33||9.50|
|Trade balance (US$bn)||-2.67||-2.55||-2.80|
On October 24, 1999, over 90 percent of Tunisia’s eligible voters flocked to the polls to overwhelmingly support the state’s incumbent President, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali, 62, easily won a third five-year term, an outcome that had been widely expected. The most notable aspect of this campaign was that it marked the first presidential election in Tunisia’s 43-year history in which opposition candidates were allowed to challenge the President.
Nevertheless, human rights groups criticized the election process by declaring that despite the government’s commitment to political pluralism and press freedom, the gap between rhetoric and substantive action remains wide. While Ben Ali has recently promised greater political liberalization, many citizens still question whether there will in fact be any modification in the tough measures used to restrain Islamists, trade unionists, and human rights activists.
Soon after being re-elected, President Ben Ali backed up his election promises of economic reform and growth by reshuffling his Cabinet and appointing the economist Mohamed Ghannouchi as the state's new Prime Minister. Ghannouchi (58) replaced Hamed Karoui, who had served in this post for the past 10 years. The new Prime Minister developed his solid reputation by serving as Minister of International Cooperation and Foreign Investment and as Minister of Finance and Economics. During the past decade, Ghannouchi was a key negotiator during talks with the World Bank, IMF and the European Union.
Ben Ali's selection was hailed by both Tunisian and international businesspeople. They believe that Ghannouchi comprehends the needs of international investors and that he will help further the country's integration into the global economy. Ben Ali's Cabinet makeover did not end with Ghannouchi's designation. The President appointed four female ministers, doubling the number in the previous government. Additionally, he replaced Foreign Minister Said Ben Mustapha with Habib Ben Yahia, who had served in the Defense Department. The President, did, however, maintain consistency and stability in the economic and business departments, retaining Taoufik Baccar as Finance Minister and Abdellatif Saddam as Minister of Economic Development.
Tunisia’s government has continued to face the wrath of human rights groups. This North African country's human rights record had received wide-scale international attention following the hunger strike by local journalist Taoufik Ben Brick. This affair brought negative publicity to Tunisia, threatening to taint its relations with the European Union and diminish its allure to foreign investors.
Responding to claims that the government intimidates opponents by confiscating or refusing to renew passports, in mid-May Tunisian President Ben Ali affirmed the "inalienable" right of Tunisians to bear passports and travel without restriction.
Despite its dubious human rights’ record, Tunisia's appeal to international corporations appears unharmed. Last year, the volume of foreign investment in Tunisia totaled $420 million, versus $650 in 1998. However, if privatization investments (roughly $310 million) are disregarded, then direct foreign investments in 1999 represent a 40 percent augmentation over the previous year's total. In May, British Gas (BG) announced that it was set to substantially expand its activities in Tunisia. BG will invest an additional $450 million over nine years in the Miskar gas field development and undertake further exploration activity in this Arab state.
Recent economic forecasts support the relative strength of Tunisia's economy. Its real GDP growth rate in 2000 is estimated at above 5 percent, in line with the robust annual average during the past ten years. Inflation has been held below 3.7 percent, a significant statistic considering that Tunisia is in the process of gradually implementing its free trade accord with the European Union.
Tunisia continues to benefit from the financial assistance it receives from the European Union, within the framework of the partnership accord signed back in 1995. Over the next nine years, Tunisia will gradually dismantle all trade barriers on imported EU-manufactured goods. The European Union is, however, compensating Tunisia for future losses of customs revenues.
The Tunisian pseudo-democratic election represented a current trend in the Arab world, whereby political pluralism is largely declarative in nature and has minimal practical significance. In the case of Tunisia (as in many other Arab states), this process mainly aims to reinforce the country’s global image, which can subsequently be translated into economic gains. Nevertheless, even President Ben Ali comprehends that despite his landslide victory, a primary task will continue to be to maintain a grip on potentially threatening opposition elements. As long as these forces are suppressed, Tunisia will continue to reap the fruits of its appeal to foreign tourists and investors.
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)