- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

TUNIS, Tunisia — Things are changing in this country, and for the better.

Now, 33 percent of industrial workers are women, and by next year Tunisia will have 300,000 students in its 10 universities.

Education — compulsory and free — and the growing role of women in this Arab country have dealt a heavy blow to Islamic fundamentalism. The regime’s secular orientation has been strengthened with the slogan “mosques belong to God.”

The economy develops as the slogan “up to the international level” opens doors to the European Union and other foreign investors. More than 2,500 foreign firms have set up shop in Tunisia.

Foreign companies settling here are free of taxation for the first 10 years. They are attracted by the low cost of qualified labor compared with Europe. The hourly minimum wage here is the equivalent of 60 U.S. cents — compared with $6 in France, Tunisia’s former colonial master.

A software engineer in Tunisia earns about $14,000 a year.

“We have a homogenous, ambitious population, ready for the culture of democracy,” said Oussama Romdhani, a senior government official. “The Tunisian system needs pushes and shoves, but no major overhaul.”

To Ridha Ben Mosbah, director general in the Ministry of Industry, the move “up to the international level” is intended to “increase competitiveness and innovation, give incentives to modernize equipment, and improve the quality of our products.”

Having no significant natural resources except phosphate, Tunisia exports electronic equipment, automobile parts, textiles and leather products. Manufactured goods represent 87 percent of exports.

Tunisia, said Mr. Mosbah, “is now a developed, emerging country.”

An association agreement with the European Union — the first for a North African country — has led to a series of other agreements with European and southern Mediterranean countries.

In the long term, officials say, the goal is to create a large Euro-Mediterranean tariff-free zone with 800 million inhabitants.

Unemployment, officially at 15 percent of the labor force, is still a problem and no instant solutions are feasible. Every year, the market provides 80,000 new jobs, 46,000 of them taken up by university graduates. But graduates in literature, history and the social sciences wait a long time to find work.

Human development Indicators Tunisia Algeria Morocco

Population Growth rate 1.14% 1.68% 1.68%

Infant Mortality rate 22.8% 39.15% 46.49%

Literacy 74.4% 61.6% 43.7%

Pop. below poverty line 4.2% 23% 19%

Unemployment rate 14.9% 34% 23%

Telephone ownership 19.9% 6.4% 20.4%

Internet users 551,000 180,000 220,000

Population 9,673,600 32,277,942 31,167,783

source: United Nations Development Program

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