A Brief History of Tunisia

Sunset in Tunisia
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Modern Tunisians are the descendants of indigenous Berbers and of people from numerous civilizations that have invaded, migrated to, and been assimilated into the population over the millennia. Recorded history in Tunisia begins with the arrival of Phoenicians, who founded Carthage and other North African settlements in the 8th century B.C. 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.

Muslim Conquest

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 and the make-up of its population, with subsequent waves of migration from around the Arab and Ottoman world, including significant numbers of Spanish Muslims and Jews at the end of the 15th century.

From Arab Center to French Protectorate

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.

Independence for Tunisia

Tunisia's independence from France in 1956 ended the protectorate established in 1881. President Habib Ali Bourguiba, who had been the leader of the independence movement, declared Tunisia a republic in 1957, ending the nominal rule of the 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.

A Strong and Healthy Beginning

Starting from independence, President Bourguiba placed a strong emphasis on economic and social development, especially education, the status of women, and the creation of jobs, policies that continued under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's administration. The result was strong social progress and generally steady economic growth. These pragmatic policies have contributed to social and political stability.

Bourguiba, President for Life

Progress toward 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 Parti Socialiste Destourien, PSD or Socialist Destourian Party) became the sole legal party. Opposition parties were banned until 1981.

Democratic change Under Ben Ali​

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 Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique (RCD or Democratic Constitutional Rally), dominated the political scene due to its historic popularity and the advantage it enjoyed as the ruling party.

Survival of a Strong Political Party

Ben Ali ran for re-election unopposed in 1989 and 1994. In the multiparty era, he won 99.44% of the vote in 1999 and 94.49% of the vote in 2004. In both elections, he faced 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, 1999, and 2004 elections. However, constitutional amendments provided for the distribution of additional seats to the opposition parties by 1999 and 2004.

Effectively Becoming President for Life

A May 2002 referendum approved constitutional changes proposed by Ben Ali that allowed him to run for a fourth term in 2004 (and a fifth, his final, because of age, in 2009), and provided judicial immunity during and after his presidency. The referendum also created a second parliamentary chamber and provided for other changes.

This article was adapted from U.S. Department of State Background Notes (public domain material).

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "A Brief History of Tunisia." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-tunisia-44600. Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2021, February 16). A Brief History of Tunisia. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-tunisia-44600 Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "A Brief History of Tunisia." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-tunisia-44600 (accessed June 10, 2023).