This month Tunisians are celebrating the 20th anniversary of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s accession to power. A predominantly Arab Muslim country, Tunisia has a strong commitment to social progress and modernity. The North African country has championed women’s rights and promulgated an enlightened interpretation of Islam at a time when the faith is often hijacked by extremists for political ends.
Speaking with host Carol Castiel of VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA, Tunisian spokesman Oussama Romdhani said that in 1987 Tunisia embarked on a reform of its educational system to promote “tolerance and respect for other cultures and religions.” Mr. Romdhani, who is director of Tunisia’s External Communication Agency, adds that Tunisia is proud of its “personal status code,” dating back to the period of independence from France in 1956. The code establishes full equality between men and women under the law. In that year, women were also given the right to vote. Today 59 percent of university students in Tunisia are women, and women are prominent in the professions.
Mr. Romdhani, along with Mr. Roger Bismuth, senator in the upper house of the Tunisian Parliament, were part of an official delegation that came to Washington to take part in a public affairs program on Capitol Hill. Mr. Bismuth is also founder of the Tunisian-American Chamber of Commerce and president of the Tunisian Jewish Community. He notes that Jews have lived peacefully in Tunisia for more than 2,000 years.
Mr. Bismuth says Tunisia hopes to boost and diversify trade and development activities with the United States and to encourage investment by more American companies. Tunisia also wants to increase “cultural tourism.” For example, Mr. Romdhani says that Tunisia boasts the world’s largest collection of Roman mosaics, and it has spectacular scenery and beaches.
However, human rights activists have criticized the Tunisian government for serious abuses. For example, since 2005, the government has imprisoned more than 500 persons on charges related to a 2003 anti-terrorism law. But Oussama Romdhani says that Tunisia operates under the rule of law and that people who are accused have the right to a trial and that no one is mistreated “regardless of the allegations that often come from biased sources.” He says that Tunisia is determined to fight “extremism and terrorism.” Furthermore, freedom of expression is permitted and nine political opposition parties are represented in Parliament and they have their own independent newspapers. Mr. Romdhani says that poverty now stands at 3.8 percent and that 80 percent of Tunisians are members of the middle class. Among African countries, he notes, Tunisia is “ranked first in terms of economic competitiveness.”
For more than 3,000 years, Tunisia has been at the crossroads of Mediterranean culture and trade. After the fall of Carthage, a city-state founded in 814 B.C., the Romans ruled the area for 700 years. In the 7th century A.D., the Muslim conquest reached North Africa, and in the 16th century, Tunisia was under Ottoman control. France declared Tunisia a protectorate in the late 19th century, but in 1956, Tunisia finally gained its independence.