Because of its strategic location in the Mediterranean, Tunisia’s territory has been disputed by different peoples since ancient times. In the second and third centuries BC, the region was inhabited by the Phoenicians who founded Carthage, their largest colony. The Punic Wars brought the region under the sovereignty of Rome.
Tunisia enjoyed a high level of prosperity under Roman rule. In the early 5th century, the country fell to the Vandals who stayed there until the middle of the 6th century AD when the region was conquered by the Byzantines, then, the Arabs arrived and established control of Tunisia a century later, also extending their domination over Algeria and Tripolitania. The indigenous population, mainly Berbers converted to Islam. Tunisia prospered during the Moroccan rule, which lasted more than three centuries.
When the Turks arrived, Tunisia became part of the Ottoman Empire and was ruled by a series of Turkic “Beys”, or “Pashas”, governors, who possessed a high degree of independence from the Ottoman Empire. The rule of the “Beys” lasted almost until the mid-twentieth century.
The Beys of Tunis and their government tried to build a modern nation during the nineteenth century to fend off stronger European powers which had become increasingly influential in the region through economic expansion. The Beys abolished slavery and established a constitutional form of government, enhanced public work programmes such as roads and waterworks using funds borrowed from Western banks. They made vigorous efforts to utilize Western knowledge and technology to modernize the state. But these efforts led to fiscal bankruptcy.
This was the pretext that the European powers were waiting for. A commission of European creditors took over the finances of the country. France, in 1883, established a Protectorate over the country. The Tunisian independence movement was already active before World War I, in 1920. Destour, the Tunisian Liberal Constitutional Party, was founded, with the goal of arousing Tunisian national consciousness and opposition to the French protectorate. The Destour party, however failed to achieve reforms and concessions. By 1934 the younger nationalists broke away from Destour, calling themselves Neo-Destour.
The secretary-general of the less compromise-inclined new party was Habib Bourguiba, who soon promoted demonstrations and strikes. Nationalists’ aspirations were aimed at achieving a French-Tunisian government with its own constitution.
During the war Tunisia was the most targeted region of North Africa, although the country did not have great resources. So, Tunisia had to face serious economic and social problems after the war was over: unemployment, low wages, exploitation of local labour, electricity shortage and population growth supported neither by an increase in agricultural productivity, nor by industrial development. These were the main reasons why Tunisia remained within the French Union longer. In August 1946, Bourguiba carried the Tunisian case to the United Nations, but with no result.
Tunisia won its struggle for independence from France on 20 March 1956, after French Prime Minister Mendes France acknowledged the desirability of autonomy. In July 1957, Tunisia became a Republic with Bourguiba as its President. He turned out to be an intelligent and balanced person who expressed his willingness to cooperate with France and the Western world. In 1974, he had the National Assembly amend the constitution to make him president for life. Bourguiba launched Tunisia on the path of social and educational reforms that would have deeply changed the country. He prohibited polygamy, raised the age of marriage for girls to 17 years old, facilitated women’s ability to obtain divorce in court and legalized abortion. Public education was a national priority and schooling became free to all school-aged children. Bourguiba also guaranteed the independence of the judiciary against any form of religious interference. Making Tunisia “a secular state inhabited by Muslims”, that was Bourguiba’s goal. At the end of the 70s’ the Tunisian economy took off. But when Bourguiba got sick some years later, things began to change and the country started to be undermined by continuous destabilization attempts.
In October 1987 President Habib Bourguiba appointed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Sousse Prime Minister. Ben Ali was trained in France at the military academy and at the artillery school. He had also studied engineering in the United States. He was appointed state secretary for national security in 1984 and cabinet minister in 1985, and he became minister of the Interior in 1986. Bourguiba, who had ruled Tunisia since its independence from France in 1956, was ill and considered by many to be unfit to continue in office. On November 7, Ben Ali deposed him in a peaceful coup, and assumed the presidency.
Ben Ali continued his predecessor’s moderate, pro-Western oriented policy, and used an iron fist to crush the political Islamist movement in the country. Ben Ali emphasized Tunisia’s stand against extremism and terrorism. In what he described as measures beyond simple considerations of security, he used swift police actions to deal a blow to militant Islamic groups, sending their leaders into exile. At least 8000 people were jailed and Ben Ali even slowed down the pace of democratization in order to fend off attacks against the establishment.
He abolished life presidency which became limited to two terms, but at the end of his terms he was re-elected as sole candidate, twice in a row, in 1994 with 99.91% of the vote and in 1999 with 99,44%.
In 2002, a referendum on a new constitution allowing Ben Ali to extend his rule theoretically until 2014 was approved with more than a 99 percent majority. Despite that the presidency was open to other candidates, they, unlike the President, were not allowed by law to make appearances on national TV or give interviews to the foreign press. Ben Ali was re-elected in 2004 with 94.9% of the vote. He committed several human rights abuses, he ordered the persecution of intellectuals and opposition activists. Tunisia became a police state, while the president’s family controlled huge sections of the country’s economy. (M.B.)