Constitutional & Legal Foundations
Tunisia is a multi-party, parliamentary democracy with a republican form of government. The governmental structures were established by the Tunisian Constitution of June 1, 1959, which was amended July 12, 1998. Based on a combination of French civil law stemming from the period during which Tunisia was governed as a French protectorate (1881-1956) and Islamic law (Sharia) based on the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Mohamed (the Hadith), Tunisian law reflects a blending of Western and North African concepts, traditions, and legal norms pertaining to how society should operate and be governed. Tunisia was the first Arab state to revise its legal code with respect to women, although additional reforms are still needed to guarantee that women's rights are equal to men's not only in law but also in practice. In the early years of Tunisia's independence Bourguiba promoted a new legal code governing the rights of women in Tunisian society that became instrumental to granting women more-equal status in Tunisia than in other Arab states. Bourguiba's Code of Personal Status, introduced in August 1956, five months after Tunisia's independence from France was declared, outlawed polygamy, established a formal court procedure for divorce where the wife as well as the husband could initiate a legal divorce, set a minimum age for marriage, and established that a woman could not be married off by her relatives without her consent. Bourguiba also facilitated the establishment of the Union Nationale des Femmes de Tunisie (UNFT—National Union of Tunisian Women), which has worked to advance the personal, social, and economic situations of women since the 1950s. He also encouraged Tunisian women to forsake wearing the traditional veil, a practice that already had begun to unravel during French colonial days. Tunisian women in the twenty-first century wear a diverse array of clothing, each woman choosing her style of dress based on personal taste, religious values, and family circumstances.
Political Participation: All Tunisians, men and women alike, are eligible to vote at age 20; men are also eligible for military service at that age. (Women were granted the right to vote under Bourguiba in 1957.) Tunisia's democratically elected chief executive and head of state, the President, is elected to a five-year term of office and can be reelected twice consecutively. The executive branch of the Tunisian government also includes a prime minister and cabinet. Since November 7, 1987, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a member of the majority RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique, or Democratic Constitutional Rally) party that also rules the legislature, has been President of Tunisia. At the national level the Tunisian legislative branch consists of a unicameral Chamber of Deputies (Majlis al-Nuwaab) of 182 seats. The Deputies, 11.5 percent of whom were women by the late 1990s, serve five-year terms. A constitutional change in October 1997 lowered the eligible age for Deputies to 23 years from the previous age requirement of 25 that had been set in 1988. Legislative acts are subject to a limited amount of judicial review by the Supreme Court acting in joint session. The third branch of Tunisia's national government is the judicial branch, consisting of a Court of Cassation (Cour de Cassation). Tunisian local affairs are administered through a system of 23 governorates that function in a rather similar way as states or French departments, although perhaps with less autonomy from the national government, and through locally elected city and town councils.
Despite the enlargement of the political playing field in 1994 when candidates from five parties other than the majority RCD won seats in the Chamber of Deputies, in 2000 the incumbent Tunisian government continued to limit political challenges by non-RCD politicians and displayed only minimal tolerance for multi-party competition or expressions of political dissent. Due in large measure to internal security concerns that Tunisia could become another Algeria (where armed Islamicists have battled government and paramilitary forces since January 1992), some Tunisian authorities have strictly interpreted Tunisian laws to contain political dissent and suppress critiques of the government. Cited repeatedly by international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as a persistent violator of human rights, including freedom of the press and freedom of association, the Tunisian government in the 1990s established its own human rights organs and began a campaign to educate Tunisian public officials and Tunisian citizens about human rights. However, as of early 2001 academic freedom and political pluralism continue to be somewhat limited, and self-censorship continues to be rather widely practiced.
Tunisia has participated regularly in many regional and international organizations and conferences to foster international cooperation and economic development. To some extent Tunisia has served as a model for other countries in the Arab world and in Africa in setting precedents for economic reforms and development efforts. For example, in 1962 Tunisia became the first country in the Middle Eastern-North African region to receive an education loan from the World Bank. In 1998 Tunisia became the first non-European Mediterranean country to enter into a bilateral partnership agreement with the countries of the European Communities, to gradually liberalize trade relations and work towards establishing a regional free market zone by 2008. Receiving sustainable development assistance in the form of grants and loans from international bodies such as UN agencies, Tunisia also has formed bilateral partnerships with a number of European and other countries. For example, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State announced early in 2001 that it would provide grants to collaborative partnerships of American and Tunisian universities, governmental and nongovernmental organizations, and non-profit service and professional organizations interested in designing and strengthening university-level curricula in Tunisia as well as faculty and student training programs in business management, public administration, and other areas where the potential impact on the Tunisian economy is likely to be positive.
Educational Philosophy & Policy: Education in Tunisia carries high social value, and parents throughout Tunisia, whether rural or urban, see education as the key to a successful future for their children. Parents and teachers work closely together, and Tunisian teachers command a generally high level of respect from students and parents alike. Presenting his recommendations for improving higher education in October 1999, President Ben Ali summed up the overall Tunisian sentiment on the importance of education by stating, "Knowledge is the key to success."
Shortly after independence Tunisia worked actively to upgrade the quality of its education system and make schooling more inclusive. Examining the connection between education and social and economic advancement in Tunisia, James Allman wrote:
In 1958, two years after independence, there was a basic educational reform that was implemented by a minister of education who had ten years to carry out his program under conditions of national political stability. Attempts were made to coordinate educational planning within the framework of comprehensive economic and social development plans. By the end of the first decade of education development, Tunisia was spending a proportion of its per capita gross domestic product on education exceeded by few other countries of the world. (Allman 12-13)
The essential philosophy underlying Tunisia's educational system is reflected in Tunisian Minister of Education Ridha Ferchiou's opening remarks at a two-day, World Bank-sponsored seminar on "The School of Tomorrow" held in Tunis in May 1998 that brought together Tunisian educators and government policy-makers as well as educational specialists from abroad. According to Minister Ferchiou, Tunisian education is characterized by: 1) care in balancing moral, linguistic, social, scientific, artistic, and physical components, 2) openness to modernity, 3) development of a critical spirit, and 4) reinforcement of the spirit of tolerance and the study of human rights. Although these "characteristics" are more like goals not yet fully realized than existing features, consensus on their importance appears widespread among Tunisian educators and government officials as well as among international specialists such as the World Bank team supporting educational reforms in Tunisia.
Depicting Tunisia's educational progress and the challenges lying ahead, Minister Ferchiou presented a clear synopsis of government views on necessary educational reforms, highlighting several major goals: 1) reinforce evaluation and improve educational management, 2) increase decentralization, 3) integrate new technologies by installing computers and Internet access in all high schools and preparatory schools by 2001, 4) accentuate the essential in teaching programs and manuals, emphasizing basic competencies and reflecting new scientific and technological concepts, 5) reinforce initial teacher training through continuing education for teachers to improve teaching quality, 6) restructure and rein-vigorate pedagogical research and innovations partly by transforming the former Institut National des Sciences de l'Education (INSE, or the National Institute of Pedagogical Sciences) into a more dynamic structure operating by modern management methods, based on scientifically designed and implemented research programs linked to national and international competencies, and 7) improve teacher laws and working conditions. In fact, the two seminar days in May 1998 prefaced a World Bank-sponsored educational reform project directed toward improving the quality of Tunisian education and upgrading teacher training, financed through the World Bank FY2000 Education Sector Reform Loan for Tunisia—the US$99 million "Education Quality Improvement Project."
Laws Affecting Education: The most recent comprehensive reforms of Tunisia's education system were begun in 1989 and crystallized into Law No. 965 on July 29, 1991, which established the first nine years of basic education as compulsory for all Tunisians ages 6 through 15. Additional significant laws were passed during the 1990s to improve the structure and function of Tunisian public education. The Ministry of Education itself was restructured through Decree No. 98-1799 of September 14, 1998; the Ministry of Higher Education already had been structured by Decrees No. 95-470 of March 23, 1995 and No. 97-495 of March 14, 1997. Multidisciplinary institutions attached to Tunisia's University of the South and University of the Center were supported through Decrees No. 89-1939 of December 14, 1989 and No. 93-423 of February 17, 1993. The Offices of University Operations in charge of student scholarships, loans, residences, sociocultural activities, and recreation were created and regulated through Decrees No. 90-1122 of June 26, 1990 and Nos. 95-1953 and 95-1954 of October 9, 1995.
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