During the Middle Paleolithic period, Tunisia was embraced by the Aterian culture (see the Aterian), whose preserved artifacts are dominated by chip tools and arrowheads with tongs. About 14,000 BC appeared the so-called iberomaurusian culture, which at the end of the ice age about 10,000 BC was replaced by the capsien culture, characterized by chip implements, geometric microliths, bone artifacts and decorated ostrich eggs. From about 5000 BC hunting and gathering were gradually replaced by agriculture and livestock management.
Through the construction of Utica, Carthage and other Phoenician colonies in the 8th and 7th centuries BC (possibly even earlier) the coastal country was drawn into the eastern Mediterranean cultural sphere. Carthage gradually came to dominate all of present-day Tunisia except in the south, where Berber tribes maintained their freedom. After the destruction of Carthage 146 BC the region, now the province of Africa, became one of the leading grain producers of the Roman Empire. The economic boom is reflected in extensive urban development and a rich cultural life that came to an end only with the conquest of the vandals 429 AD. Tunisia was taken back by the Byzantines in 533. See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Tunisia.
Islamization and Arabization (from about 650)
In the middle of the 600s, the area was reached by Arab expansion, and in 670 the city of Kairouan with its powerful mosque in the middle of Tunisia was founded by an Arab general, sent by the rulers of Egypt. Carthage was conquered in 697, but Kairouan became the provincial capital until the mid-1000s. The country’s political and administrative center was restored in 1160 in Tunis on the Mediterranean coast in the northeast, close to old Carthage. Since then, Tunis has been a capital city.
The Arab conquest did not entail large population movements, but culturally and politically it became a crucial turning point in the history of Tunisia and all of North Africa. Christianity and Roman heritage were forced back. Islam spread, as did the Arabic language. Islamization became quite complete all the way to Morocco. Over time, a specific Tunisian identity has taken shape. It is based both on the heritage of the original residents, the Berber, and later influences, mainly the Arab. From 1160, Tunisia was first ruled as a province under the Caliphate of Morocco. In 1228, the Caliph’s deputy in Tunisia succeeded in establishing an independent kingdom, which survived until 1574. Tunis was then a cultural center, where historian Ibn Khaldun, among others, grew up, and the country participated in international trade around the Mediterranean.
- COUNTRYAAH.COM: Provides latest population data about Tunisia. Lists by Year from 1950 to 2020. Also includes major cities by population.
The Ottoman period (1574–1881)
In 1574 Tunisia came under the Ottoman Empire but in practice functioned as a fairly independent state, with domestic political autonomy and foreign policy protection through the Turkish empire. In 1705, the first king (bey) of the Hushanitic dynasty came to power, formally as a Turkish governor. Beyer of this genus continued to sit on the throne, under Turkish and French supremacy, until 1957 (see below).
Thus, towards the end of the 19th century, Tunisia had a very long tradition of consolidated state power behind it. But the country did not have enough internal dynamics and cohesion to develop society and economy of its own accord and at the same time to resist the pressure of expansive Europe. Admittedly, several Tunisian governments had made ambitious efforts to modernize the educational system, economy and military power, especially under bey Ahmad (1837–55) and Finance Minister Khayr ad-Din (1873–77). Significant progress had been made, but the effort required funding. Tax collections aroused internal contradictions, even open revolt in the countryside (1864). Seemingly generous foreign loans led to heavy indebtedness and vulnerability to demands from the European powers, especially France.
French Protectorate (1881–1956)
The protectorate as a form meant that Tunisia retained its state-law identity, but the supreme power in the country became French. Beyen and the government were directly controlled by the French general resident of Tunis. Local administrations were also placed under French directors. Initially, government finances were stabilized under the conditions of France, and a foundation was laid for economic modernization, including through rail construction. The country was not colonized in the same massive way as neighboring Algeria, but large parts of the most fertile land and leading positions in the economy were taken over by Europeans. It was mainly French and Italians who immigrated to Tunisia. In the 1950s, over 200,000 Europeans lived in the country on privileged terms, nearly half of Italian origin.
The alien power reinforced the nationalist trends from the end of the 19th century. The group “The Young Tunisians” formed a political party in 1907 with demands for better education and more power in politics and economics for the Tunisians themselves. Their body became the magazine Le Tunisia, which soon also appeared in an Arabic-language version. After the First World War, the Destour Party was formed, whose main demands were equal rights for Tunisians and Europeans. French repression made operations more difficult, but in 1934 the young lawyer Habib Bourguiba took the lead of the Néo-Destour outbreak group. The most important difference to before was that the new party actively turned to the people’s broad stock in the quest to mobilize political support. During the 1930s and 1940s, the reform demands were radicalized in the direction of autonomy and independence for Tunisia.
When the People’s Front government came to power in France in 1936, the space was temporarily expanded for Bourguiba and Néo-Destour. But soon the repression tightened again. The party was banned and the leaders imprisoned. During World War II, Tunisia was occupied by Germany and Italy, which unsuccessfully tried to lure Bourguiba to its side. Following the Allied victory in 1945, a period of sharp contradictions followed between the French colonial power and the Tunisian independence movement.
France agreed to independence in 1956, first for Morocco and then for Tunisia. On March 20, an agreement was reached with Tunisia, and Bourguiba became prime minister. On July 25, 1957, he became president after the abolition of the monarchy.
A number of tasks were needed during the first year of independence. Administration and legal apparatus were taken over from the French. The teaching system was expanded. Women and men were given the same civil rights. A new basis was adopted. However, the economy stagnated, and foreign capital fled the country. In early 1961, the president appointed union leader Ahmad Ben Salah as planning minister with the task of pursuing a more state-directed development policy. The party changed its name to the Socialist Destour Party in 1964. The more radical line aroused resistance, and Ben Salah was deposed in 1969 and sentenced to prison in 1970. The economy was liberalized with some stabilization as a result. The regime was also dominated by the president and the only political party.
In the 1981 elections, there was room for opposition parties, but the government still took all seats in parliament. The opposition boycotted the elections in 1986. In 1987, President Bourguiba was declared senile and dismissed. His successor was Zayn al-Abidin Ben Ali, who won the clear victory in the 1994 presidential election.
Despite the development strategic conflict in the 1960s and the opposition to the authoritarian political system, Ben Alis Tunisia was characterized by stability compared to other countries in North Africa and the Middle East. In foreign policy, the attitude was cautious. From 1982 up to the 1993 Oslo agreement, PLO had its headquarters in Tunis. Culturally, the country was long considered liberal, but under pressure from internal Islamic opposition and events in the outside world, not least in neighboring Algeria, the political regime hardened considerably during the 1990s.
Tunisia regularly received criticism from the outside world for lack of respect for human rights. In the early 2000s, the threat of armed Islamists also increased. The terrorist network al-Qaeda claims to have been behind an explosive attack in 2002 on the island of Jarba, when 21 people were killed, including 14 German tourists. In 2007 and 2008, security forces repeatedly met with people designated as Islamists. A large number of people suspected of terrorism were arrested.
Arab Spring and Democratization
The high unemployment and the toughening political climate in December 2010 led to widespread regime hostile protests, triggered by a young street vendor burned to death in protest against police harassment (see further Arab Spring). In January 2011, President Ben Ali and parts of his family fled to Saudi Arabia. A provisional unity government led by Ben Ali’s Prime Minister took office but was dissolved shortly afterwards due to continued protests and demands for a complete break with the old regime. A new interim government was set up pending general elections, while political prisoners were released, exile politicians returned and new parties formed.
Ben Ali’s party RCD was dissolved by a court decision and the president was prosecuted, investigated and convicted in his absence on a number of points, including financial crime, drug possession, theft of state property and corruption. He was sentenced several times to long prison sentences.
In an election to a Constituent Assembly in October 2011, the previously banned Islamist party, Ennahda, won. Its leader Hamadi Jebali (born 1949) formed an Islamist-dominated coalition government and human rights activist Moncef Marzouki (born 1945), leader of the second largest party Congrès pour la République (CPR), was elected by the Constituent Assembly as interim president.
The work of writing a new constitution began in February 2012 and this could be approved in January 2014. However, the road there was lined with problems, and Ennahda tried to balance demands from both secular and Islamic forces. Disappointment over government policy led to violent demonstrations and radical Islamist Salafism has grown stronger. After two political murders in 2013, fighting broke out between government forces and the group accused of the murder Ansar al-Sharia. A decisive role for eventually becoming a political solution to the conflicts is considered to have played Tunisian quartet for national dialogue. This forum was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2015.
In October 2014, parliamentary elections were held in which the 2012 secular party Nidaa Tounes (‘Call for Tunisia’) became the largest party with Ennahda in second place. In the presidential election held later in the year, 88-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, who represented Nidaa Tounes, prevailed. Essebsi died in 2019. In the presidential election held in the fall of this year, the social conservative independent candidate Kaïs Saïed, a lawyer with constitutional law as a specialty, won.
Tunisia is alone among the countries that experienced popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes during the Arab Spring to have undergone a democratic transformation. However, stability has been threatened, not least by the terrorist attacks that were directed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March 2015 when 23 people were killed, among them 20 foreign tourists.