Tunisia - A Brief History

Published on 1st November 2005

Tunisia is a Muslim Arab country situated on the North African Mediterranean coast. It is the easternmost and smallest of the three nations along the Atlas mountain range, bordering one of the others, Algeria to the west, as well as Libya to the south and east. Forty per cent of the country is comprised by the Sahara desert, with much of the remainder consisting of particularly fertile land and easily accessible coasts. Both played a prominent role in ancient times, first with the founding of the famous Phoenician city of Carthage, and later, as the Africa Province, it became known as the bread basket of the Roman Empire. It is thought that the name Tunis originated from Berber, meaning either a geographical promontory, or, \'to spend the night.\'

Modern Tunisians are the descendents of indigenous Berbers and of people from numerous civilizations that have invaded, migrated to, and been assimilated into the population over the millenia. Recorded history in Tunisia begins with the arrival of Phoenicians, who founded Carthage and other North African settlements in the 8th century BC. Carthage became a major sea power, clashing with Rome for control of the Mediterranean until it was defeated and captured by the Romans in 146 B.C. The Romans ruled and settled in North Africa until the 5th century when the Roman Empire fell and Tunisia was invaded by European tribes, including the Vandals. The Muslim conquest in the 7th century transformed Tunisia\'s and the make-up of its population, with subsequent waves of migration from around the Arab and Ottoman world, including significant numbers of Spanish Moors and Jews at the end of the 15th century. Tunisia became a center of Arab culture and learning and was assimilated into the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. It was a French protectorate from 1881 until independence in 1956, and retains close political, economic, and cultural ties with France. 

In 1574 Tunisia was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. It became a province and in 1705, under the Bey of Tunisia, a de facto independent state, although it recognized Ottoman suzerainty. Between 1726 and 1821 Tunisia was inside the Ottoman Empire subordinated to Algiers. In 1881 Tunisia became a French protectorate. In the protectorate the nationalist Mouvement Constitutionelle (MC) became active. The movement became illegal and in 1934 the more radical Parti Néo-Destourien (New Constitutional Party, PND) Party was founded by al-Habib ibn Ali Abu Ruqayba (Bourguiba). In 1946 the protectorate became associated state in the French Union and in 1956 the protectorate was terminated after its independence.

President Bourguiba, who had been the leader of the independence movement, declared Tunisia a republic in 1957, ending the nominal rule of the former Ottoman Beys. In June 1959 Tunisia adopted a Constitution modeled on the French system, which established the basic outline of the highly centralized presidential system that continues today. The military was given a defined defensive role, which excluded participation in politics. Starting from independence, President Bourguiba placed strong emphasis on economic and social development, especially education, the status of women, and the creation of jobs, policies continued under the Ben Ali administration. The results were strong social indicators--high literacy and school attendance rates, low population growth rates, relatively low poverty rates and generally steady economic growth rates. These pragmatic policies have contributed to social and political stability. 

Progress towards full democracy has been slow. Over the years President Bourguiba stood unopposed for re-election several times and was named \"President for life\" in 1974 by a constitutional amendment. At the time of independence, the Neo-Destourian Party (later the PSD) became the sole legal party when opposition parties were banned until 1981.

When President Ben Ali came to power in 1987 he promised greater democratic openness and respect for human rights, signing a \"national pact\" with opposition parties. He oversaw constitutional and legal changes, including abolishing the concept of president for life, the establishment of presidential term limits, and provision for greater opposition party participation in political life. But the ruling party, renamed the Democratic Constitutional Assembly (RCD), continued to dominate the political scene because of its historic popularity and the advantage it enjoyed as the ruling party. Ben Ali ran for re-election unopposed in 1989 and 1994, and won 99.44% of the vote in 1999 when he faced two weak opponents. The RCD won all seats in the Chamber of Deputies in 1989, and won all of the directly elected seats in the 1994 and 1999 elections. However, constitutional amendments in those years provided for the distribution of additional seats to the opposition parties in 1999. Currently, five opposition parties share 33 of the 182 seats in the Chamber. A May 2002 referendum approved constitutional changes proposed by Ben Ali to allow him to run for a fourth term in 2004, created a second parliamentary chamber, and provided for other changes. 

Tunisia is a leader in the Arab world in promoting the legal and social status of women. A Personal Status Code was adopted shortly after independence in 1956 which, among other things, gave women full legal status (allowing them to run and own businesses, have bank accounts, and seek passports under their own authority) and outlawed polygamy. The government required parents to send girls to school, and today more than 50% of university students are women. Rights of women and children were further enhanced by 1993 reforms, which included a provision to allow Tunisian women to transmit citizenship even if they are married to a foreigner and living abroad. The government has supported a remarkably successful family planning program that has reduced the population growth rate to just over 1% per annum, contributing to Tunisia\'s economic and social stability.

Below is an analysis of Tunisia according to The 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, The Heritage Foundation Heritage and The Wall Street Journal:

Rank: 83

Score: 3.14

Category: Mostly Unfree

Population: 9,781,000

Total area: $ 163,000 sq. km

GDP: $ 25.1 billion

GDP growth rate: 1.7 %

GDP per capita: $2, 574

Major exports: textiles, electrical equipment, leather, petroleum

Exports of goods and services: $ 11.3billion

Major export trading partners:  France 30.5%, Italy 20.7%, Germany 11.1%, Spain 4.5%

Major imports: machinery, textiles, electrical equipment

Imports of goods and services (fob): $12.3 billion

Major import trading partners: France 26.5%, Italy 19.8%, Germany 8.8%, Spain 4.8%

Foreign direct investment (net): $703.6 million



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The 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, The Heritage Foundation Heritage and The Wall Street Journal

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