total: 163,610 sq km
land: 155,360 sq km
water: 8,250 sq km
Total: 1,495 km
border countries (2):
Algeria 1,034 km,
Libya 461 km
Coastline: 1,148 km
Total: 2643 km
temperate in north with mild,
rainy winters and hot,
desert in south
narrow coastal plain,
mountains in north;
hot, dry central plain;
semiarid south merges into the Sahara
mean elevation: 246 m
elevation extremes: lowest point: Shatt al Gharsah -17 m
highest point: Jebel ech Chambi 1,544 m
petroleum, phosphates, iron ore, lead, zinc, salt
agricultural land: 64.8%
arable land 18.3%; permanent crops 15.4%; permanent pasture 31.1%
other: 28.6% (2011 est.)
4,590 sq km (2012)
Population – distribution:
the overwhelming majority of the population is located in the northern half of the country; the south remains largely underpopulated
People and Society
Unlike many of its North African and Middle Eastern neighbors, Tunisia will soon be shifting from being a youth-bulge country to having a transitional age structure, characterized by lower fertility and mortality rates, a slower population growth rate, a rising median age, and a longer average life expectancy. Currently, the sizable young working-age population is straining Tunisia’s labor market and education and healthcare systems. Persistent high unemployment among Tunisia’s growing workforce, particularly its increasing number of university graduates and women, was a key factor in the uprisings that led to the overthrow of the BEN ALI regime in 2011.
Tunisia has a history of labor emigration. In the 1960s, workers migrated to European countries to escape poor economic conditions and to fill Europe’s need for low-skilled labor in construction and manufacturing. The Tunisian Government signed bilateral labor agreements with France, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, and the Netherlands, with the expectation that Tunisian workers would eventually return home. At the same time, growing numbers of Tunisians headed to Libya, often illegally, to work in the expanding oil industry. After mass expulsions from Libya in 1983, Tunisian migrants increasingly sought family reunification in Europe or moved illegally to southern Europe, while Tunisia itself developed into a transit point for sub-Saharan migrants heading to Europe.
Following the ousting of BEN ALI in 2011, the illegal migration of unemployed Tunisian youths to Italy and onward to France soared into the tens of thousands. Thousands more Tunisian and foreign workers escaping the civil war in Libya flooded into Tunisia and joined the exodus. A readmission agreement signed by Italy and Tunisia in April 2011 helped stem the outflow, leaving Tunisia and international organizations to repatriate, resettle, or accommodate some 1 million Libyans and third-country nationals.
11,403,800 (July 2017 est.)
Arab 98%, European 1%, Jewish and other 1%
Arabic (official, one of the languages of commerce), French (commerce), Berber (Tamazight)
Muslim (official; Sunni) 99.1%, other (includes Christian, Jewish, Shia Muslim, and Baha’i) 1%
Language and the Society
Modern-day Tunisians are a mixture of Berber and Arab stock. The Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa, have no generic name for themselves. The Romans called them barbari, or “barbarians,” the term applied to those peoples who lived outside the framework of Greco-Roman civilization and from which the designation Berber probably comes. Of stocky physique and having a high incidence of light hair and blue eyes, the Berbers are Caucasians akin to other Mediterranean peoples.
The Arab component of the society was introduced during the conquests of the seventh, the eleventh, and succeeding centuries. Racially, the Arabs brought a slender build, dark eyes and hair, and darker skin to the community from which most modern Tunisians are descended. The Berbers quickly accepted the religion, language, and culture of the invaders and intermarried with them. In modern times most Tunisians claim Arab ancestry, speak Arabic, profess Islam, and find only traces of Berber culture in their lives.
Arabic is the official language of Tunisia and in its North African Maghribi form constitutes the native language of virtually the entire population. Berber, the indigenous tongue, is spoken by substantial ethnic minorities in Algeria and Morocco, but in Tunisia only about 1 percent of the population use it as their mother tongue. Berber speakers, who numbered about 70,000 in the mid l980s, occupy villages on the edge of the desert in such areas as Sened, Matmata, Jerba Island, and Nefusa on the Libyan border. They also inhabit the oasis of Ghadames. Half of the population speaks French as a second language, and many French-educated Tunisians find themselves more at ease with French than with Arabic.
Four varieties of Arabic are in use in Tunisia: classical, modern literary (or modern standard), colloquial (or dialectical), and intermediary (or “educated”). The classical Arabic of the Quran is the basis of Arabic and the model of linguistic perfection, according to orthodox Islamic precepts. It is the vehicle of a vast historical, literary, and religious heritage, and individuals with a knowledge of classical Arabic can converse with their counterparts throughout the Middle East. Classical Arabic is employed for religious purposes or sometimes for literary or rhetorical emphasis.
Tunisian education system was built on the French model, therefore, the focus of the education reformers was to Arabize curriculum and faculty at nation’s schools and universities. Tunisia adopted a phased approach towards Arabization. Given the number of Francophone nationals and the absence of qualified Arabized teachers to teach scientific subjects, policymakers maintained French both as a foreign language and as a medium of instruction for math and science in primary education. Humanities and social sciences were Arabized incrementally, initially in primary and subsequently in secondary education. In the 1970s, the decision was made to extend Arabization to all subjects in post-primary education, except vocational, professional, and technical tracks. At the university level, French was maintained as the language of instruction in technical institutes and science faculties.
The total adult literacy rate in 2008 was 78%. Education is given a high priority and accounts for 6% of GNP. A basic education for children between the ages of 6 and 16 has been compulsory since 1991. Tunisia ranked 17th in the category of “quality of the [higher] educational system” and 21st in the category of “quality of primary education” in The Global Competitiveness Report 2008-9, released by The World Economic Forum.
The academic year runs from October through to June, and the medium of education in Arabic. Students are tested at the end of each trimester, through oral and written tests, and practical examinations too. The initial phase of their free basic education begins with 6 years at primary school. The final 3 years of preparatory education take place at middle school. Here a score of over 50% is required to pass the examination for the Diplôme de Fin d’Études de l’Enseignement, that opens the door to secondary school. The four years of secondary education are open to all holders of Diplôme de Fin d’etudes de l’Enseignement de Base where the students focus on entering university level or join the workforce after completion. The Enseignement secondary is divided into two stages; general academic and specialized.
The higher education system in Tunisia has experienced a rapid expansion and the number of students has more than tripled over the past 10 years from approximately 102,000 in 1995 to 365,000 in 2005. The gross enrollment rate at the tertiary level in 2007 was 31 percent. In total, there are 13 universities, 24 institutes of technological studies and 6 higher institutes of teacher training. The Zaitouna Mosque and University illustrated here are thought to have been established in the year 732. It has played a prominent part in the history, religious life and culture of this ancient land, although more recently it has struggled to keep up with change.
Tunisia has made important strides to advance its democratic transition, but the country remains fragile to economic, security and social shocks. Growth has been too low to make a significant dent in unemployment, fiscal and current account deficits are elevated, inflation has risen and popular discontent about economic conditions is high, particularly among youth and in interior regions. The national unity government—a coalition of the main political parties, worker and trade unions—has adopted a consensus-building reform approach.
In 2017, the economy grew by 2 percent following 1 percent and 1.1 percent in 2016 and 2015, respectively, driven by robust private consumption and a rebound in investment. However, the contribution of exports and investment to growth remain significantly below their levels before the 2011 Revolution. On the production side, growth in 2017 was driven mainly by agriculture and services, while industrial and non-manufacturing industries (i.e., phosphate, oil) have not fully recovered despite the Dinar depreciation, due to social movements in mining regions, low oil prices and reduced investment in prospection.
Unemployment remains high at 15.5 percent in 2017 despite a low labor force participation, at about 50 percent, mainly due to the weak participation of women (28 percent). Most of the unemployed are low-skilled but university graduates have the highest unemployment rate, which increased from 15 percent in 2005 to 23 percent in 2010 and 31 percent in 2017. Unemployment rates are also much higher among women and in interior regions. The national unity government—a coalition of the main political parties, the largest workers’ and trade union formed almost two years ago—has set its priority as strengthening the security environment, improving the business environment, ensuring macroeconomic stability, fiscal sustainability and restarting growth. It has so far adopted a gradual and consensus-building approach to reform in the presence of strong workers’ unions and private sector organizations.
Economic growth is projected to expand modestly by 2.7 percent in 2018 through sustained agricultural and services growth, continued strengthening of tourism, and gradual recovery of tourism, phosphate, and manufacturing. In the medium term, economic growth is projected to pick up gradually to 3.5 percent in 2019/20 against a backdrop of improved business climate through structural reforms and greater security and social stability. While the government is deploying resources to improve the security situation, the high level of youth unemployment notably in the lagging regions as well as rising inflation may reignite social tensions. The government also faces the challenge of balancing between social stability and the need for reform, which highlights the importance of promoting greater social and economic inclusion to create sufficient support for reform. Moreover, reforms to stimulate private sector growth, job creation and entrepreneurship are key to creating opportunities and hope for the future.
GDP (purchasing power parity):
$135.9 billion (2017 est.)
$132.8 billion (2016 est.)
$131.5 billion (2015 est.)
note: data are in 2017 dollars
GDP (official exchange rate):
$39.88 billion (2017 est.)
GDP – real growth rate:
2.3% (2017 est.)
1% (2016 est.)
1.1% (2015 est.)
GDP – per capita (PPP):
$12,000 (2017 est.)
$11,800 (2016 est.)
$11,800 (2015 est.)
Gross national saving:
13.8% of GDP (2017 est.)
13.5% of GDP (2016 est.)
12.5% of GDP (2015 est.)
GDP – composition, by sector of origin:
services: 63.5% (2017 est.)
Agriculture – products:
olives, olive oil, grain, tomatoes, citrus fruit, sugar beets, dates, almonds; beef, dairy products
petroleum, mining (particularly phosphate, iron ore), tourism, textiles, footwear, agribusiness, beverages
Population below poverty line:
15.5% (2010 est.)
revenues: $9.397 billion
expenditures: $11.61 billion (2017 est.)
Agriculture plays a leading role in Tunisia’s economy, with approximately 16% of the country’s workforce engaged in the agricultural sector. Agriculture contributes about 12% to the country’s GDP, and the sector is growing at around 5% per year. Historically, Tunisia’s agricultural system was based on small family farms that grew subsistence crops with little market integration, but larger agricultural enterprises are increasingly prominent. Public land may be leased by the government to private farmers or managed directly by the Ministry of Agriculture. Foreigners cannot own agricultural land but may obtain long-term leases.
Because of the EU’s importance to Tunisia’s trade, the government tends to follow EU rules on agriculture. Although the GOT does not have a legal framework on genetically engineered products, the Tunisian attitude reflects closely the predominant view within Europe. Until a law is in place, imports of genetically engineered commodities will continue to be handled in a manner similar to products of conventional agriculture. Tunisian olive oil and date exports possess organic certification from the EU. Tunisian exporters can also gain approval for the sale of their products as “organic” in the U.S. market through local USDA accredited certifiers.
In 2015, the food processing sector accounted for over 1,000 enterprises employing 10 people or more, 20% of them producing solely for export. The production value of this sector is around $5 billion annually and is continuously growing due to improved household purchasing power and changes in eating habits towards consumption of processed products versus fresh ones. The food processing sector’s demand for imported high-value ingredients is steadily increasing, with more sophisticated products licensed by multinational food companies.
Over the last decade, the modern retail sector has seen in-depth development fueled by the expansion of modern distribution outlets, supermarkets, and hypermarkets through joint ventures with foreign investors. These have mostly been with France, including the Carrefour and Casino groups (Géant and Monoprix). The hotel and restaurant industry is not perceived as a separate market from retail, as most hotels and restaurants either source their food needs through annual tenders or through the same distribution channels used by households. In addition to domestic customers, this sector caters to the many tourists visiting Tunisia each year. High-end hotels import spirits, wines, and specialty cheeses either directly or via import companies.
A significant market potential exists for a wide range of agriculture-related inputs. Tunisia possesses a sizable market for agricultural equipment, including grain silos, elevators, tractors, harvesters, irrigation systems, and food processing/bottling machinery. Because of the wide variation in recent grain harvests and the shortage of storage capacity for grains, the GOT is especially concerned with increasing the quantity of Tunisia’s grain silos. The GOT offers tax incentives of up to 50% under the 2016 Investment Law to encourage acquisition of tractors, combine harvesters, and other related equipment. The consumer-oriented products with prospects to perform best in the Tunisian market include tree nuts, dried fruits, cookies, sauces, condiments and mixed seasoning, and breakfast cereals.
electrification – total population: 100% (2016)
Electricity – production:
18.39 billion kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – consumption:
15.12 billion kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – exports:
500 million kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – imports:
403 million kWh (2015 est.)
Electricity – installed generating capacity:
5.028 million kW (2015 est.)
Electricity – from fossil fuels:
93.4% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
Electricity – from nuclear fuels:
0% of total installed capacity (2015 est.)
Telephones – fixed lines:
total subscriptions: 974,975
subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 9 (July 2016 est.)
Telephones – mobile cellular:
subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 125 (July 2016 est.)
Internet country code:
percent of population: 50.9% (July 2016 est.)
Since the 1970s Tunisia has opted for an economic model geared toward exports and industrialization, sustained by the implementation of investor-friendly legislation, as well as support public investment in infrastructure and human capital. The approach has been successful for decades, with manufacturing forming the basis of the country’s GDP growth over the last 40 years. A wide variety of subsectors has thrived, including textiles, agri-business, pharmaceuticals, and mechanical, electrical and electronic industries (MEEIs). Exports are fostered by the close proximity to European markets, a competitive logistical infrastructure, and an affordable and qualified labour force.
However, manufacturing industries have experienced a slowdown in production during the post-revolution years as a result of broader instability, more frequent labor disputes, a slowing of capital spending – technology spending in particular – and heightened international competition. This is a concern for the government, which – in a bid to reboot industrial growth while simultaneously boosting employment and export revenues – has put in place several reforms to improve Tunisia’s investment climate and encourage operators to move up the value chain.
In the post-revolution years between 2011 and 2015, the Tunisian manufacturing sector has seen a mixed performance, with a substantial decline in production by traditional industries such as phosphate and textiles offset by the expansion of technology-based segments such as automotive and aeronautics. According to the National Institute of Statistics, the manufacturing sector contributed 15.5% to GDP at market prices when measured in the second quarter of 2016. Growth in the third quarter was recorded at 1.1% and at 0.6% in the fourth quarter, with raw phosphate, the chemical industries, and MEEIs being the largest segments.
Growth is expected due to a recent spike in industrial investments as announced by the Agency for the Promotion of Industry and Innovation (APII), an entity which has served as a one-stop-shop platform for local and foreign investors since the establishment of the offshore regime. According to the APII, declared investments in the sector grew from TD2.6bn (€1.1bn) in 2015 to TD3.8bn (€1.6bn) in 2016, led by MEEIs (an increase of 111%), agri-business (71%) and chemical industries (26%). By contrast, textiles and apparel, as well as leather goods, have seen their levels of investment shrink by 40% and 62%, respectively.
As with much of the country’s secondary and tertiary economy, manufacturing is clustered in coastal areas, where 85% of wholly exporting enterprises are currently located. This has been supported in part by the ease of access to shipping and transport infrastructure – and large pools of labor – but also by the establishment of industrial zones. Industrial zones, which offer land and turnkey infrastructure for investors, were first established in the 1980s. In total, 144 industrial zones stretching over an area of 4289 ha have been set up, including 18 in the Greater Tunis area, 38 along with other coastal areas, 49 in regional development areas and the remaining zones located elsewhere. To meet growing demand, the Industrial Land Agency has plans to construct 64 new industrial zones covering approximately 1600 ha across Tunisia, including five in Greater Tunis, 14 along coastal areas and 45 in inland areas.
Banking and Finance
Tunisia’s financial system is dominated by its banking sector, with banks accounting for roughly 90% of financing in Tunisia. Overreliance on bank financing impedes faster economic growth and stronger job creation. Equity capitalization is relatively small; Tunisia’s stock market provides 6-7% of the corporate financing. Other mechanisms such as bonds and microfinance contribute marginally to the overall economy. Created in 1969, the Bourse de Tunis (Tunis stock exchange) listed 79 companies (66 in the main market, 12 in the alternative market, and one in a special group) as of December 2016. Capitalization of these companies was valued at $10.6 billion.
Most major global accounting firms are represented in Tunisia. Firms listed on the stock exchange must publish semiannual corporate reports audited by a certified public accountant. Accompanying accounting requirements exceed what many Tunisian firms can, or are willing to, undertake. GOT tax incentives attempt to encourage companies to list on the stock exchange. Newly listed companies that offer 30% capital share to the public receive a five-year tax reduction on profits. In addition, individual investors receive tax deductions for equity investment in the market. Capital gains are tax-free when held by the investor for two years.
Tunisia hosts 32 banks, of which 21 conduct both commercial and investment services. Two are Islamic universal banks, seven are offshore, and two are business banks. After the fall of the former regime, companies, banks, and real estate that belonged to ousted President Ben Ali’s family were brought under GOT receivership. Private credit stands at 65% of GDP in Tunisia. According to the World Bank, this level lags behind economic peers such as Morocco and Jordan, whose rate is 80%. In the World Bank’s 2017 Ease of Doing a Business survey, Tunisia’s raking improved in terms of ease of access to credit from 126 in 2016 to 101 in 2017.
According to the IMF Financial System Stability Assessment, the banking sector faces significant challenges such as a weak domestic economy and the legacy of the previous regime. In particular, loan quality, solvency, and profitability have deteriorated. Weak underwriting practices contributed to inappropriate lending to well-connected borrowers. Tunisia’s 25 onshore banks offer essentially identical services targeting the same segment of Tunisia’s larger corporations. Meanwhile, SMEs and individuals often have difficulty accessing bank capital due to high collateralization requirements.
Beyond the banks and stock exchange, few effective financing mechanisms are available in the Tunisian economy. A true bond market does not exist, and government debt sold to financial institutions is not re-traded on a formal, transparent secondary market. Private equity remains a niche element in the Tunisian financial system. Firms experience difficulty raising sufficient capital, sourcing their transactions, and selling their stakes in successful investments once they mature. The microfinance market remains underexploited, with non-governmental organization Enda Inter-Arabe the dominant lender in the field.
Tourism in Tunisia is an industry that generates around 7 million arrivals per year, which makes the country among the ones that attract the most tourists in Africa. Tunisia has been an attractive destination for tourists since the beginning of the 1960s. Among Tunisia’s tourist attractions is its cosmopolitan capital city of Tunis, the ancient ruins of Carthage, the Muslim and Jewish quarters of Jerba, and coastal resorts outside Monastir. According to The New York Times, Tunisia is “known for its golden beaches, sunny weather, and affordable luxuries.”
Place of Attraction
The remnants of ancient Carthage – fabled wealthy seafaring city of the Phoenicians – lie scattered across the Bay of Tunis. The evocative tumbled columns and piles of marble rubble are bordered by a panorama of the Mediterranean Sea, which was so fundamental to the city’s prosperity. Completely destroyed in the third Punic War in 146 BC, the surviving ruins pale in comparison to some of North Africa’s other ancient sites, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit.
The world’s most renowned mosaic collection resides in this opulent palace in Tunis. Along with Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, the Bardo is one of North Africa’s two top museum experiences. Inside, room after room exhibits gloriously intricate and still vibrantly fresh examples of mosaic art that have been unearthed from sites across the entirety of Tunisia. The Sousse Room, Odysseus Room, and Dougga Room have particularly impressive exhibits of this art form, but the entire collection is a treasury and is well worth an afternoon of browsing.
The gorgeous Andalusian-style seaside neighborhood of Sidi Bou Said owes its fame to three young painters. While living here in 1914, Paul Klee, August Macke, and Louis Moilliet captured the beauty of its whitewashed buildings and blue doors on canvas. Sidi Bou Said has been something of a bohemian artists’ quarter ever since and is a favored weekend hangout spot for Tunis locals. There are no tourist attractions as such (that’s part of its charm), but you can’t fail to be beguiled by the perfect white-and-blue streets, cliffside cafés, and picture-postcard shoreline.
Chock-a-block full of crumbling buildings found by weaving your way through a procession of ever-skinnier alleyways, the medina (old town) district is Tunis’ historic heart and is brimming with sightseeing potential. The main entrance gate, marking the end of the new city and beginning of the old is known as Bab el Bahr (Sea Gate). Built in 1848, it was known as Porte de France during the colonial period.
The medina district’s great mosque is home to some of the country’s finest examples of religious architecture. Begun during the Umayyad dynasty in AD 732, it has been added to and refined by conquering empires in the centuries since. Although non-Muslims cannot enter the prayer hall, visitors are free to wander around the opulent and tranquil exterior courtyard and also to head up to the rooftop, where dazzling tile work is on display. The rooftop is also one of the best places in the medina to get panoramic photographs of the area.
The coastal regions of Tunisia shared in an early Neolithic culture that was common to the whole Mediterranean littoral. Artifacts left by hunters and fishermen who excelled in making stone blades and tools are plentiful, and evidence points to the early domestication of cattle and the cultivation of crops in the area. South of the Atlas range, nomadic hunters and herders roamed a vast savanna, well watered and abounding in game, that 8,000 years ago stretched across what is now the vast desert known as the Sahara. Their culture flourished until the region began to desiccate after 4000 B.C. Scattering before the encroaching desert and invading horsemen, some of the savanna people migrated northward, where they were subsequently absorbed by the Berbers.
Linguistic evidence suggests southwestern Asia as the point from which the ancestors of the Berbers began their migration into North Africa early in the third millennium B.C. Over succeeding centuries they extended their range from Siwa in Egypt to the Niger Basin. The Berbers present a broad range of physical types, and the affinity of various groups seems based almost entirely on linguistic grounds. Berber tradition told that they were descended from two unrelated families, and modern scholars believe that the Berbers did indeed cross North Africa in two simultaneous waves—one that entered the region from the southeast after a long sojourn in Black Africa and another that took a northerly route. The Berbers were well known to classical writers. Sallust, a Roman historian, and politician living in the first century B.C. described their way of life, elements of which still exist in the twentieth century.
Minoan seamen from Crete may have set up depots on the coast of present-day Tunisia before 2000 B.C., but it was only with the arrival of Phoenician traders, who penetrated the western Mediterranean before the twelfth century B.C., that the region entered into recorded history. Safe harbors on the African coast, equipped to service, supply, and shelter their ships, were the links in a maritime chain that reached to Spain. Tunis, Bizerte, Sousse, Monastir, and Sfax originated as Punic (see Glossary) trading posts where the merchants of Tyre (in present-day Lebanon) developed commercial relations with the Berber tribes of the interior and paid them tribute to ensure their cooperation in securing raw materials. The greatest of the Punic colonies, Carthage (Qart Hadasht, the New Town), was founded, according to tradition, in 814 B.C. by a Phoenician princess whose name has come down to Western readers through Virgil’s Aeneid as Dido. Carthage was governed by a mercantile oligarchy that exercised power through a senate, composed of elder statesmen, under a constitution praised by Aristotle for providing a perfect blend of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.
The basic unit of social and political organization among the Berbers was the extended family, usually identified with a particular village or with traditional grazing grounds. Families, in turn, were bound together in the clan. An alliance of clans, often tracing their origins to a common ancestor as a symbol of unity, formed a tribe. Courts and representative assemblies guided by customs peculiar to the group functioned at each level of organization. Berber folk law and government, like Berber folk religion, were highly personalized and therefore most effective at the lowest levels of their application. Ultimately, each household or tent was its own republic.
For mutual defense, kindred tribes joined in confederations, which, because the war was a permanent feature of tribal life, were in time institutionalized. Some chieftains, successful in battle, established rudimentary territorial states by imposing their rule on defeated tribes and allies alike, but their kingdoms were easily fragmented, and the dynasties that they sought to found rarely survived more than a generation. By the third century B.C., however, several large, although loosely administered, Berber kingdoms had emerged behind the coastal areas controlled by Carthage. These monarchies were supported by the sedentary farmers who looked to the kings to protect them from the raids of the nomadic pastoralists.
The Berber kings adapted Punic and Greek ceremonial forms to the usage of their courts, and treaties of friendship with Carth- • age were often sealed by a king’s marriage to a woman from the family of a Carthaginian notable. The Berber kings ruled in the shadow of Carthage and later Rome, sometimes forming alliances with one or another of the great powers. After Carthage was vanquished by Rome, they threw in their lots with factions vying for power in the Roman civil wars of the first century B.C. One of the most illustrious of these tribal monarchs was Masinissa (ca. 240—148 B.C.), who had served with the Carthaginians in Spain. Masinissa shifted his support to Rome in time to be counted among the victor’s allies when Carthage surrendered in 202 B.C.
With Roman patronage, he united Numidia and extended his authority from the Moulouya River to Cyrenaica, a territory he governed from his Hellenistic court at Cirta (Constantine in present-day Algeria). Numidia was divided among several heirs after Masinissa’s death. Rome intervened when his grandson, Jugurtha (118—105 B.C.), attempted to revive Masinissa’s Berber kingdom. Betrayed by a rival chieftain at the end of a long and exasperating war in which he pinned down large numbers of Roman troops, Jugurtha was carried away to Rome and was starved to death in the Capitol.
Rome dictated a hard peace to Carthage after the battle of Zama, imposing a stiff indemnity and prohibiting Carthage from making war without Roman consent. When Carthage succeeded in paying the indemnity levied against it, voices were raised in the Roman Senate warning against a revival of Carthaginian might and urging that Carthage is destroyed. Masinissa had in the meantime taken advantage of the restrictions placed on Carthage’s war-making powers to invade its territory. When Carthage chose to defend itself, Rome declared war, charging a breach of the peace agreement. Carthage surrendered to a besieging Roman army in 146 B.C. Its population was dispersed, the city razed to the ground, and its earth sown with salt.
The Carthaginian territory was annexed by Rome and eventually organized as the province of Proconsular Africa, governed by a civilian official (proconsul) appointed annually by the Senate. Julius Caesar subsequently ordered the rebuilding of Carthage as a Roman city and the capital of the province. The royal house of Masinissa continued to rule Numidia as a Roman protectorate until 46 B.C. when Caesar deposed its king, who had sided with Pompey in the civil wars and attached a part of it to Proconsular Africa.
The Roman ruins seen in present-day Tunisia attest to the civic vitality of Proconsular Africa, where populous cities and even the smaller towns, their streets laid out in characteristic grid design, enjoyed the amenities of urban life—the forum, markets, public entertainments, baths, and fountains—found in every corner of the Roman Empire. Merchants and craftsmen from many parts of the Roman world established themselves in the cities and towns, while army veterans and migrants from Italy settled in the coastal countryside: but the bulk of the population of Proconsular Africa consisted of publicized Berber farmers. Called the “granary of the empire,” Roman Africa was valued for its agricultural exports, which were Italy’s principal source of food.
By the beginning of the second century, Christianity had been introduced among the Jewish community and soon gained converts in the towns and among slaves. Carthage became the center of Latin Christianity in Africa and Tertullian. By the end of the fourth century, Rome’s African provinces had been thoroughly Christianized, and inroads had been made in the hinterland among the Berber tribes. Donatism, a heresy within the puritanical tradition, won adherents during periods of severe Roman persecution and flourished again after Christianity was officially recognized in the fourth century by the empire, in opposition to bishops accused of collaborating with the state. The sect became a vehicle for social revolt at a time of political deterioration and economic depression, and it was an example of the religious enthusiasm that would be seen again in the history of the Berbers.
The Byzantine Empire
It was against the threat of Donatism to the African church that Saint Augustine (354—430), bishop of Hippo Regius (Annaba in present-day Algeria), directed many of the sermons and books, including his autobiographical Confessions, whose influence on Christian thought has continued undiminished through the centuries. Born in Thegaste (Souk Ahras in present-day Algeria), Saint Augustine is recognized as one of the Latin Fathers of the Church. In The City of God, he sought to demonstrate that the future of the church was not dependent on the survival of the Roman state (or, by extension, on any secular authority), as many contemporary Christians feared it was, and thereby to prepare his people for the onslaught of the Vandals.
Invited to North Africa by a rebellious Roman official, the Vandals, a Germanic tribe, crossed from Spain in 429, seized power, and under their war leader, Gaiseric, established a kingdom that made its capital at Carthage. Although the Roman Empire eventually recognized their overlordship in much of North Africa, the Vandals confined their rule to the most economically profitable areas in Proconsular Africa. There they constituted an isolated warrior caste, concerned with collecting taxes and exploiting the land.
Civil administration was left in Roman hands, but the Vandals, who were Arian Christians, vigorously attempted to destroy Roman Catholic ecclesiastical influence. From their African base, they conquered Sardinia and Corsica and launched raids on Italy, sacking the city of Rome in 455. In time, however, the Vandals lost much of their warlike spirit, and their kingdom fell to the armies of Belisarius, the Byzantine general who in 533 began the reconquest of North Africa for the Roman Empire. Effective Byzantine control in the old Roman province was restricted to the coastal area, and even there the newly walled towns, strongholds, fortified farms, and watchtowers called attention to its tenuous nature.
The region’s prosperity had diminished under Vandal domination. Unpopular Byzantine governors imposed burdensome taxation, while towns and public services—including the water system—were left in decay. The old Roman political and social order, disrupted by the Vandals, could not be restored, but the Byzantine rule in Africa did prolong the Roman ideal of imperial unity there for another century and a half and prevented the ascendancy of the Berber nomads in the coastal region. In outlying areas neglected by the Vandals, the inhabitants had sought the protection of tribal chieftains and, having grown accustomed to their autonomy, resisted re assimilation into the imperial system, but no coherent form of political organization evolved there to take the place of Roman authority.
Introduction of Islam
By the time of his death in A.D. 632, the Prophet Muhammad and his followers had brought most of the tribes and towns of the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of the new monotheistic religion of Islam (literally, submission), which was conceived of as uniting the individual believer, the state, and the society under the omnipotent will of God. Islamic rulers, therefore, exercised both temporal and religious authority. Adherents of Islam were called Muslims (“those who submit” to the will of God). Within a generation, Arab armies had carried Islam north and east from Arabia in the wake of their rapid conquests and westward across North Africa as far as Tripoli.
In 670 the Arabs surged into the Roman province of Africa (transliterated as Ifriquiya in Arabic), where their commander, Uqba ben Nafi, founded the city of Kairouan as a military base about 150 kilometers south of Byzantine-held Carthage. The selection of this encampment in the midst of a plain, separated from both the Roman cities on the coast and the mountains in Numidia, where the Berber tribes continued their stubborn resistance, was a deliberate act of policy by Uqba, who reportedly announced that he was founding a city that would serve “as a strong point for Islam until the end of time.” The name was chosen for the new Arab capital, derived from the Persian word caravan.
In 712 they mounted an invasion of Spain and in three years had subdued all but the mountainous regions in the extreme north. Muslim Spain (called Andalusia) and the Maghrib, which had been conquered within 50 years of the founding of Kairouan, were organized under the political and religious leaders of the Umayyad caliph of Damascus. Arab rule in Ifriquiya—as elsewhere in the Islamic world in the eighth century—had as its ideal the establishment of political and religious unity under a caliphate (the office of the Prophet’s successor as supreme earthly leader of Islam) governed in accord with a legal system (sharia) administered by qadis (religious judges), to which all other considerations, including tribal loyalties, were subordinated.
The rise of the Kharidjites in the Maghrib coincided with a period of turmoil in the Arab world during which the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyads and relocated the caliphate in Baghdad. The marabouts were mystics and seers, miracle workers endowed with a charisma (bara/ca), whose tradition antedated Islam in the Maghrib and was as old as religion itself among the Berbers. They were incorporated into intensely local cults of saints whose domed tombs dotted the countryside and who was venerated by Muslims and Jews alike. The marabouts had traditionally acted as arbiters in tribal disputes, and, whenever the authority of government waned in a particular locale, the people turned to them for political leadership as well as for spiritual guidance. Thus, Ifriquiya came more directly under the orthodox influence of the mosques and schools of Tunis and Kairouan, and, second, it is larger urban and sedentary population had been more thoroughly Arabized than was the case elsewhere in the Maghrib.
The Ottoman Empire
Piracy lured adventurers from around the Mediterranean to the Maghribi coastal cities and islands. Among them were two brothers, Aruj and Khair al-Din, the latter known as Barbarossa (Redbeard) to Europeans. Muslims from the Greek island of Lesbos, they reached Tunisia in 1504 and sailed from Jerba Island under Hafsid patronage. In 1510, however, the brothers were invited by the maritime republic of Algiers to defend it against the Spaniards. Instead, they seized Algiers and used it as a base of operations not only for piracy but also for conquests in the interior.
In 1587 the Ottoman Maghrib was divided into three regencies—at Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. In Tunisia, the authority of the beylerbey as regent gave way to that of a pasha (governor) appointed by the sultan for a one-year term. The regency was provided with a corps of janissaries, recruited from Anatolian peasants who were committed to a lifetime of service in Tunisia. It formed a self-governing military guild, subject to its own laws, whose interests were protected by the Divan, a council of senior officers. Real power came to rest with the army, and the pasha’s role was reduced to that of ceremonial head of state and figurehead representative of Ottoman suzerainty.
In Tunisia until 1591, the corps of janissaries was considered to be under the control of the local Ottoman Pasha. In 1591 janissary junior officers (deys) overthrew their senior officers; they then forced the Pasha to acknowledge the authority of one of their own men. This new leader was called the Dey, elected by his fellow deys. The Dey took charge of law and order in the capital and of military affairs, thus becoming “the virtual ruler of the country”. The change defied the Ottoman Empire, although from the Tunisian perspective political power still remained under the control of foreigners. The existing state diwan (council) was dismissed, but to placate local opinion some Tunisian Maliki jurists were appointed to some key positions.
As holders of the office of Bey the Husaynid Dynasty effectively ruled Tunisia as sovereigns from 1705 to 1881; thereafter they continued to merely reign until 1957. In Ottoman theory perhaps until 1881 the Bey of Tunis remained a vassal of the Ottoman Empire (the Friday prayer was pronounced in the name of the Ottoman Sultan, money was coined in his honor, and an annual ambassador once brought gifts to Constantinople) but for centuries the Ottomans were not able to depend on, or exact, the obedience of the Tunisian Bey. In 1881 the French created their protectorate which lasted until 1956. During this period the Beylical institution was retained; the Husaynid Bey served as titular head of state but it was the French who actually ruled the country.
Tunisia Under different Amirs
Aghiabids After the Arab conquest, Ifriquiya was governed by a succession of amirs (commanders) who were subordinate to the caliph in Damascus and, after 750, in Baghdad. In 800 the caliph appointed as Amir Ibrahim ibn Aghlab, who established a hereditary dynasty and ruled Ifriquiya as an autonomous state that was subject to the caliph’s spiritual jurisdiction and nominally recognized him as its political suzerain. The ninth century has been described as the region’s “golden age,” from which it developed as a politically and culturally distinct entity within the Islamic world.
During the golden age, Aghiabid patronage transformed Kairouan into the center of Maghribi religious and intellectual life. Kairouan was a great market for books in Arabic and Hebrew that had been copied by scribes.
Merchants of the coastal towns were the backbone of the Fatimid state that had been founded by religious enthusiasts and imposed by Berber tribesmen. The slow but steady economic revival of Europe created a demand for goods from the East for which the ports of Ifriquiya and Fatimid Sicily were the ideal distribution centers. Trading houses in Ifriquiya opened branches in Egypt, and their merchants, some of whom ventured as far as India in search o trade goods, won a reputation for their daring.
The Fatimid rule was harsh and intolerant, persecuting the Sunni ulama of Kairouan and the Kharidjite sectarians alike. The Fatimids completed the conquest of Egypt from the Abbasids by 18 Historical Setting 969 and moved their capital to the new city that they founded at Cairo, where they established a Shia caliphate to rival that of the Sunni caliph at Baghdad. The Fatimids left the Maghrib to their Berber vassals, the Zirids, but the Shia regime had already begun to crumble outside Ifriquiya as factions struggled indecisively for regional supremacy.
The eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed the rise in Morocco of two rival Berber tribal dynasties—the Almoravids and Almohads, both founded by religious reformers—that dominated the Maghrib and Muslim Spain for more than 200 years. The Hafsids’ political support and Tunisia’s economy were rooted in the coastal towns, while the hinterland was effectively given up to the tribes that had made their nominal submission to Tunis. The Hafsid sultans encouraged trade with Europe, forged close links with Aragon and the Italian maritime states, and dispatched embassies as far afield as the court of King Haakon of Norway. The Maghrib and Spain, linked under the Almohads, shared a common culture—called Moorish—that transcended dynastic lines and political boundaries in creating new and unique forms of art, literature, and architecture.
At the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Britain agreed to allow France a “free hand” in Tunisia in exchange for French acquiescence to the leasehold on Cyprus that the British had acquired from Turkey. It was accepted among the European powers that France planned to occupy Tunisia, but no excuse for French intervention presented itself until April 1881, when a punitive expedition was launched into Tunisian territory, ostensibly in pursuit of 30 Historical Setting Khumiri tribesmen who had raided across the border into Algeria. The considerable force of more than 40,000 men—which the French explained was necessary to avoid undue bloodshed—was more effectively used in overawing the Tunisian government, however, than it was in hunting down nomadic tribesmen. French cavalry advanced on Tunis while seaborne units landed in Bizerte and occupied the port, considered potentially the best naval base in North Africa but far from Khumiri country.
Under the protectorate, Tunisia was governed according to a system of dual sovereignties in which the de facto sovereignty of France was superimposed on the de jure sovereignty of the beylicate. Tunisia remained what it had been for 300 years, the “Regency of Tunis.” The preexisting form of beylical government was maintained intact, and the established political elite continued to function within it. Although the elite readily assimilated French values, Tunisian society retained its own social standards and a tradition of higher culture that was the core of the country’s sense of nationhood. The demographic impact of the protectorate was not severe in Tunisia, where European corporate development of the land rather than European settlement remained the rule.
By 1892 more than one-fifth of Tunisia’s arable land, concentrated in the north, was French owned, but 90 percent of it was in the hands of only 16 landowners and companies engaged in the cap. ital-intensive agriculture. Less than 10 percent of the French residents were engaged in farming. In 1897 a fund was established to pay the cost of settling French colons (colonists), and the next year the beylicate allowed habus land to be put on the market. But, despite inducements offered by the French government and by private colonization societies in France, there was no rush of colons to Tunisia as there had been to Algeria.
Traditional education in Tunisia was highly developed before 1881, and the school of the Zituna Mosque in Tunis was recognized as one of the leading centers of classical Islamic studies. Under the protectorate the French residency continued to emphasize education, patronizing the Zituna Mosque school and the Muslim schools as well as Kherredin’s Sadiki College. The latter was accredited as a lycée and set the standard for a bilingual, bicultural school system, offering instruction to a mixed student body, that was extended throughout the country. Many Tunisian graduates of these schools went on to complete their education in France.
The Rise of Nationalism
In 1908 the Hambak and Sfar factions reunited to form a nationalist political organization, the Young Tunisians. They were a small group, interested in efficiency rather than the representative government, whose newspaper, Le Tunisien, was aimed at convincing liberal French readers that the Tunisian elite was capable of taking over a greater share of responsibility for the country’s management. Nationalist activists gravitated toward the Destour (literally, Constitution) Party, founded in 1920 by Abdelaziz al Thalibi, a graduate of the Zituna Mosque school who had been one of the leaders of the Young Tunisians exiled in 1912.
Support for the Neo-Destour Party came from artisans, shopkeepers, and peasant proprietors, who in the midst of the depression of the 1930s were more interested in maintaining their standard of living than in expelling French, as well as from students and members of the professional class who had backed the old Destourians In 1946 an autonomous trade union, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (Union General des Travailleurs Tunisiens—UGTT), backed by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), broke away from the communist-dominated French labor organization. Led by a onetime trolley driver, Ferhat Hached, the UGTT cooperated closely with the Neo-Destour Party in efforts to redefine Tunisia’s relationship with France.
By 1930s, Leadership of the nationalist movement was already passing to a new generation of French-educated Tunisians, more at ease in French than in Arabic, who crystallized ideas of national identity and populism, which the old leadership had been unable and unwilling to do, and who adopted tactics that emphasized constant activism and violent resistance to the protectorate. Younger members of the Destour Party had argued that nationalism, to be effective against the French, had to break loose from its traditional power base among the urban elite and mobilize mass support. Among the more impatient of the party activists were Mahmoud Materi, Tahar Sfar, and a lawyer named Habib Bourguiba.
In 1950 Prime Minister Mohamed Shanniq formed a new government, one that for the first time since the Al Marsa Convention had a Tunisian majority in the cabinet. Salah Ben Youssef, the Neo-Destour secretary general, joined the government as minister of justice, but it was Bourguiba who went to Paris to lay before the French government a program for independence that included provisions to create a national legislature and emphasized demands for civil rights. The Tunisian proposal also insisted on maintaining cultural, economic, and military ties with France. The French government refused out of hand to give up direct participation by French officials in the Tunisian government, but Foreign Minister Maurice Schuman confirmed that a newly appointed resident general “had been given the task of leading Tunisia to independence.”
Early in 1954, Bourguiba was released from prison to negotiate with French premier Pierre Mends-France. The nationalists and the French government were still deadlocked between Tunisian demands for full independence and the French plan, which called for internal autonomy despite vigorous objections from the colons. But Bourguiba showed a willingness to accept what France was prepared to offer while pressing for further concessions. In July Mends-France, who had just concluded the dismantling of the French colonial empire in Indochina, flew to Tunis and issued the dramatic Declaration of Carthage, which recognized Tunisia’s internal autonomy.
An agreement between France and Morocco early in 1956 indicated that Morocco, which had been a French protectorate since 1912, would soon gain complete independence, and it was hoped that the forthcoming election of the Constituent Assembly would provide a means for pressing Tunisia’s case for independence. On March 20, 1956, the patience of the Neo-Destour Party leaders was rewarded by the signing of a protocol that abrogated the Bardo Treaty of 1881 and recognized Tunisia as an independent state. The portfolios of the two ministries vacated by French officials foreign affairs and defense were taken by Bourguiba.
With independence, the Neo-Destour Party, which had been jarred by the dissent from Ben Youssef’s faction, faced the problem of consolidating its leadership and replacing the struggle for national independence with the building of national consensus as for the party’s primary goal. Expelled from the party for his opposition to Bourguiba, Ben Youssef organized a leftist opposition party that continued the guerrilla war against the Neo-Destour government. The crisis ended only when a French military operation forced the Youssefists to lay down their arms in June, three months after independence. Ben Youssef, who had earlier been condemned to death in absentia for having plotted against Bourguiba’s life, was assassinated in Frankfurt in 1961.
On March 25, 1956, some 84 percent of the registered voters went to the poils to elect candidates of the National Front, who were for the most part members of the Neo-Destour Party, to the Constituent Assembly. Bourguiba was elected president of the assembly by acclamation at its first session held two weeks later, and Ahmed Ben Salah was elected vice president. The assembly then divided its 98 members into a number of committees, each charged with drafting a part of the new constitution. Within a week Article, I had been unanimously adopted. It declared Tunisia to be a free, independent, sovereign state, with Islam its official religion and Arabic its official language.
The current state of Tunisia
In the 1980s the economy performed poorly. In 1983 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forced the government to raise the price of bread and semolina, causing severe hardship and protest riots. In this situation, the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI) under Cheikh Rached El-Ghannouchi provided popular leadership. Civil disturbances, including those by the Islamists, were repressed by government security forces under General Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The government persisted in following its program; Ben Ali was named the prime minister.
In 2004, Ben Ali was re-elected President for a five-year term, with a reported 94.5% of the vote. Also elected were 189 members of the Majlis al-Nuwaab or Chamber of Deputies, with a five-year term. In addition, there was a Chamber of Advisors composed of 126 members with six-year terms, of whom 85 were elected by government subdivisions. A widely supported human rights movement emerged, which included not only Islamists but also trade unionists, lawyers, and journalists. Tunisia’s political institutions, however, remained fixed in the authoritarian past. As of 2001, the government’s response to calls for reform Included house arrests and prison.
The Ben Ali regime came to an end following nationwide demonstrations precipitated by high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, a lack of political freedoms like freedom of speech and poor living conditions. The protests were sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December 2010, and led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 28 days later on 14 January 2011, when he officially resigned after fleeing to Saudi Arabia, ending 23 years in power. Following the overthrow of Ben Ali, Tunisians elected a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution, and an interim government is known as the Troika because it was a coalition of three parties; the Islamist Ennahda Movement in the lead, with the center-left Congress for the Republic and the left-leaning Ettakatol as minority partners.
In March 2012, Ennahda declared it will not support making sharia the main source of legislation in the new constitution, maintaining the secular nature of the state. Ennahda’s stance on the issue was criticized by hardline Islamists, who wanted strict sharia but was welcomed by secular parties. On 6 February 2013, Chokri Belaid, the leader of the leftist opposition and prominent critic of Ennahda, was assassinated. In 2014, President Moncef Marzouki established Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, as a key part of creating a national reconciliation.