The Republic of Tunisia

POPULATION: 11.00 million (2014)

AREA: 63,170 sq. mi. (163,610 sq. km)

LANGUAGES: Arabic (official); French; some Berber dialects

NATIONAL CURRENCY: Tunisian dinar

PRINCIPAL RELIGIONS: Muslim 98%, Christian 1%, Jewish and other 1%

CITIES: Tunis (capital), 1,897,000 (2001 est.); Bizerte, Sousse, Sfax, Gabes

ANNUAL RAINFALL: Varies from 60 in. (1,524 mm) in the north to 8 in. (203 mm) in the Sahara region.

ECONOMY: GDP $48.61 billion (2014)

PRINCIPAL PRODUCTS AND EXPORTS:

  • Agricultural: olives, grain, dairy products, tomatoes, citrus fruits, beef, sugar dates, almonds
  • Manufacturing: textiles, footwear, food processing, beverages
  • Mining: petroleum, phosphates, iron ore
  • Services: tourism

GOVERNMENT: Independence from France, 1956. Republic with president elected by universal suffrage. Governing body: 163-seat Majlis al-Nuwaab (Chamber of Deputies), members elected by universal suffrage.

HEADS OF STATE SINCE INDEPENDENCE:

  • 1957–1987 President Habib Bourguiba
  • 1984– President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali

ARMED FORCES: 35,000 (2001 est.)

EDUCATION: Compulsory for ages 6–16; literacy rate 67% (2001 est.)

Tunisia

The small North African nation of Tunisia lies in the center of the continent’s Mediterranean coast. Its two neighbors—ALGERIA and LIBYA—are both many times larger. Mostly Islamic with a rich Arab culture, Tunisia came under French rule in the 1880s and gained independence in 1956.

Most of the country’s main cities, including Tunis—the capital—Bizerte, Sousse, Sfax, and Gabes are located along the coast. Northern Tunisia, the most mountainous part of the country, includes the Northern Tell and High Tell chains of the ATLAS MOUNTAIN system. The north is also the wettest region, with average annual rainfall of about 60 inches, and it has the country’s only river, the Mejerda. Central Tunisia, flatter and drier, is made up of plateaus and plains. It contains seasonal salt lakes, the largest of which is Shatt al-Jarid. The southern part of the country lies in the SAHARA DESERT.

HISTORY AND GOVERNMENT

In ancient times Tunisia was settled and conquered by various powers drawn to the rich agricultural areas along the coast. Meanwhile, various BERBER-speaking nomadic groups lived in the drier interior.

Carthage and Rome

In the 800s B.C., settlers from Phoenicia in the eastern Mediterranean founded the city of CARTHAGE on Tunisia’s northern shore. Carthage dominated Mediterranean commerce until the 200s B.C., when it fought a series of wars with Rome. In 146 B.C. the Romans sacked Carthage and incorporated it in the province of Africa, which included Tunisia and parts of eastern Algeria. Although Carthage never fully regained its glory, the Romans made it the capital of Africa and a major center in their empire.

In the A.D. 400s the Vandals, a people of northern Europe, attacked Rome and its possessions. They seized the province of Africa and held it until 533, when the region was taken over by the Byzantine Empire, the eastern portion of the Roman Empire.

Arab Rule

Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula invaded Byzantine Tunisia in the 640s. By the end of the century they had conquered the province of Africa—which they called Ifriqiya—and established permanent settlements there. Under Arab rule Tunisia continued to trade with its Mediterranean neighbors. It also developed commercial connections with sub-Saharan Africa, a major source of gold and slaves. Yet Tunisia’s most significant political links were now with Muslim powers to the east and west. Over the next 1,200 years, Tunisia was conquered by a series of Muslim states but always managed to maintain its autonomy.

Tunisia’s first Muslim rulers were the Umayyads from Damascus, in present-day Syria. After taking control of Carthage in 698, they moved the provincial government to Kairouan, an inland town. Tunis, a small town near Carthage, became the main port. The Aghlabids, another Muslim dynasty, governed Ifriqiya from 800 to 910. The next rulers, the Fatimids, used Ifriqiya as a base to conquer EGYPT. In 973 they moved their capital to CAIRO, and placed the Zirid family in charge of Ifriqiya.

In 1159 the Almohads of Morocco conquered the region, but Ifriqiya did not have an effective government until the Hafsid family came to power in the 1220s. The Hafsids transferred the capital to Tunis, which led to the replacement of the name Ifriqiya with Tunisia.

During the 1500s Spain and the Ottoman Empire competed for control of the lands bordering the Mediterranean. In 1574 the Ottomans took control in Tunisia and appointed local army officers, known as deys, to run the country. The deys gained considerable power, and eventually the Ottoman rulers in Istanbul had only symbolic authority in Tunisia. In the 1600s the deys were replaced by another group of officers, the Muradid beys. The Muradids were followed in 1705 by the Husaynid beys, who ruled Tunisia until the arrival of the French.

French Rule

The French invaded Tunisia in 1881 and two years they later made it a protectorate. Soon many Europeans, mostly French but also some Italians, migrated to Tunisia and settled on the best land. In response, educated Tunisians formed a variety of organizations to protect their rights and to seek autonomy and independence. The Young Tunisians, founded in the late 1800s, was followed by the Destour Party in the 1920s and the Neo-Destour Party—led by Habib BOURGUIBA—in the 1930s. As the independence movement gathered force in the early 1950s, it met with fierce resistance from the European settlers and led to occasional violence.

On March 20, 1956, France granted independence to Tunisia. The following year Tunisia became a republic with Habib Bourguiba as its first president, a position he held for 30 years. Bourguiba was reelected in 1964 and 1969 and was named president for life in 1974. His Neo-Destour Party, known after 1964 as the Socialist Destour Party, was the only legal political party in the country. Various opposition leaders and government ministers who fell into disfavor were jailed, forced into exile, or even killed.

President Bourguiba maintained close ties with France. Although he supported Arab nationalism, his relations with other Arab leaders were often strained. In 1974 he agreed to unite Tunisia with Libya, but then withdrew from the plan.

When Bourguiba became too ill to govern in 1987, Prime Minister Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali assumed the presidency. Ben Ali has released political prisoners, abolished the post of president for life, and legalized some opposition parties. However, he has dealt severely with members of the Islamic opposition. Although the government’s election practices have been questioned, Ben Ali was reelected in 1989, 1994, and 1999, and his party has maintained a large majority in the National Assembly. The president has formed strong relationships the United States and organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. At the same time he has worked toward closer ties with Arab neighbors, founding the Arab Maghreb Union with Algeria, Libya, MAURITANIA, and MOROCCO in 1989.

Women’s rights have been an important issue in the Bourguiba and Ben Ali governments. Starting with his 1956 Personal Status Code, Bourguiba introduced dramatic marriage reforms, outlawing polygamy and forced marriage. He also granted women the right to vote. Ben Ali has passed laws against workplace discrimination and has changed a law requiring women’s obedience to their husbands. Men remain the legal heads of families and payment of dowry, opposed by some Tunisian feminists, is still legal and widely practiced.

ECONOMY

In the 1960s Tunisia adopted various socialist economic policies. Since the 1980s it has introduced some reforms that have helped to control inflation and encourage the growth of manufacturing and tourism. Exports and imports have both increased, but progress has been uneven and unemployment remains high. In 1995 Tunisia signed a free trade agreement with the European Union, its principal trading partner. It also has commercial relations with Algeria, Libya, and the United States.About one-fifth of the Tunisian labor force works in agriculture. Crop yields vary considerably according to conditions such as drought and rainfall. Wheat, barley, grapes, olives, and citrus fruits are the most important crops. Farmers also raise sheep, goats, and cattle.

Tunisia exports large quantities of oil. It also produces phosphates — used in making fertilizer—natural gas, iron ore, and lead. Manufacturing industries include textiles, leather goods, food processing, and chemicals. Tourism, particularly along the country’s Mediterranean beaches, is another major source of jobs and foreign currency.

Some Tunisians still follow a nomadic lifestyle—though their numbers are declining—and others farm small plots of land. However, more than 60 percent of the population now lives in cities and towns near the coast. Many urban dwellers are unable to find steady jobs, forcing them to take casual work with lower wages. Large numbers of Tunisians have migrated abroad, primarily to Europe. Money sent home by those working abroad makes up a significant part of the economy.

PEOPLES AND CULTURES

The vast majority of Tunisians identify themselves as Arab. Most of the rest are Berbers. Many centuries of Arab domination helped to spread Arab culture in Tunisia and allowed it to become firmly rooted there. Tunisia’s Arab heritage has influenced the way the people dress. Some women cover their entire bodies, including the head, with a single white rectangular cloth known as a safsari. Others have adopted the hijab, a simpler head covering. Men often wear a plain calf-length robe and a shashiya—a brimless, red felt cap. Other Tunisians dress in European clothes. Elaborate, richly embroidered garments are worn for weddings.

Influences

Tunisian music, art, literature, and education reveal the influence of Arab and European cultures. For example, refugees from Spain brought maaluf, an urban, classical music, to the region. Written for violin, lute, and drum, maaluf performances often last several hours. Tunisia has a centuries-old literary tradition. Before the colonial era authors from the region wrote secular poetry and philosophy as well as influential religious texts. Ibn Khaldun, a historian born in Tunis in the 1300s, wrote Muqaddama, a complex work of social theory. Since the 1900s Arabic-language novels have become increasingly popular.

Before the period of French rule, Tunisian education emphasized religious subjects such as study of the Qur’an—the Islamic sacred text—and religious law. Grammar, logic, and medicine were also offered. The most notable centers of learning were in Kairouan and at Tunis’s Zaituna Mosque-University. In the 1800s European models of education became increasingly influential. Sadiqi College, a prestigious secondary school founded in Tunis in 1875, focused on science, math, and European languages.

Since independence, strong government support for education has helped to reduce adult illiteracy rates. Most classes are taught in Arabic, except in the universities, where French is widely used. A small group of educated French-speaking Tunisians controls government administration and much of the country’s wealth.

Religion

Most modern Tunisians are Sunni Muslims. A small number of Jews—remnants of a community founded more than 2,000 years ago—still live in the country. A once-vibrant Christian community, which produced the religious scholar Augustine, disappeared by the 1100s. During the colonial era many European Christians settled in Tunisia, but most of their descendants left after independence.

Recently, a movement to base the government on Islam has gathered force. The movement is supported by Nahda, an illegal political party. President Ben Ali’s government opposes the movement and has tried to suppress it. The role of Islam in Tunisian society is perhaps the most serious question facing the nation. (See also Arabs in AfricaColonialism in Africa, Islam in Africa, North Africa: Geography and Population, North Africa: History and Cultures.)