Tunisia Recent History

Due to its strategic position in the Mediterranean, Tunisia was disputed since ancient times by different peoples. In the III and II century BC it was already inhabited by the Phoenicians who had founded their largest colony: Carthage.

At that time important historical events took place such as the famous “Punic wars”, which would then decide whether the center of the greatest empire in history would have been the Italian Peninsula or Tunisia, if the future civilization would have been Latin or African-Asian. According to Abbreviationfinder, an acronym site which also features history of Tunisia, the colossal duel ended with the radical destruction of Carthage and thus the Tunisian region was subjected to the sovereignty of Rome. The Carthaginians, descendants of those skilled merchants and navigators who were the Phoenicians, then knew who were the best colonizers who ever existed. The Romans, in fact, gave Tunisia a period of prosperity and peace, but all this collapsed with the fall of the Roman empire.

First the Vandals, Germanic barbarians who arrived in North Africa after having traveled and devastated the Italian peninsula, and then the Byzantines, put an end to the happiest period in Tunisian history. The Vandals remained in Tunisia until the middle of the sixth century after Christ; the Byzantines replaced them and dominated the region for another century, until they were driven out by the Arabs.

The Muslims brought together under their domination a territory comprising Algeria, Tunisia and Tripolitania. The indigenous population, consisting mainly of Berbers, was quickly converted to the Muslim religion, but the political dominance of the Arabs was not well accepted. The Berbers organized continuous riots against the Arabs; the most famous of these guerrillas was directed by a woman, Queen Khaina, who was eventually captured and killed. Despite these difficulties, the Arabs held the dominion of the region, which they entrusted to the care of governors.

A period of greater prosperity occurred instead during the Moroccan domination. Around 1160, in fact, the sovereigns of Morocco drove the Arabs from Tunisia and established their own viceroy. Tunis became the largest city in North Africa after Cairo during this period. There were, as still today, many lively streets covered with curtains, to protect them from the sun, the “Suks”, in each of which certain craftsmen practiced their profession: perfumers, leather makers, booksellers, goldsmiths. Moroccan domination lasted over three centuries.

Tunisia Recent History

Towards the eleventh century life in the maritime cities of Tunisia was disturbed by the presence of fleets of Turkish corsairs; they occupied these ports to make them the bases from which to make incursions on the European coasts. Naturally, the European powers reacted to this state of affairs and thus the fleets of Emperor Charles V, led by the Genoese Andrea Doria, were seen to clash with the pirates in front of the Tunisian ports. The Tunisian caliph himself turned to the emperor for protection against the corsairs, who were supported by Turkish power. But it was a wrong move: indignant to see their caliph almost submissive to a Christian sovereign, the people rose in revolt by dismissing him. The Turks took advantage of all this to occupy Tunisia, bringing their dominion (1574).

With the arrival of the Turks, the government of Tunisia remained entrusted to an authority called “bey” or “pasha”, which depended only formally on the sultan of Constantinople. The bey regime practically lasted to the present day.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Tunisia’s life was sometimes peaceful, sometimes turbulent, depending on whether there was a tyrant or benign ruler in government. In the 19th century, European powers began to take an increasingly active interest in Tunisia, where many European industries and banks had transferred large interests.

In the meantime, to remove all pretexts from intervention, Europeans did everything possible to adapt their country to modern civilization: slavery was abolished and a form of constitutional government was established; grandiose public works were also carried out, such as roads and aqueducts, but the excessive waste of state money brought Tunisia to the brink of economic ruin. Here is the pretext that the European powers awaited: Italy was also interested in the fate of Tunisia, but France was more ready to intervene and, in 1883, was able to establish its own protectorate on this country.

France nominally left the government to the bey but practically had all the powers in Tunisia. Under the French administration the country made great progress; about 100,000 Italian emigrants also collaborated in this work of civilization (also because the Sicilian channel separates Italy from this African country with only 140 kilometers).

Nationalistic unrest had arisen in the country since World War I, but the National Liberation Movement took shape organized in 1920 with the founding of the “Party of Destur” (the Constitution) which ran aground in sterile attempts to obtain reforms and concessions from France partial. A movement less inclined to compromise, the “Neo Destur” was founded in 1934 by Habib Burghiba, and immediately promoted unrest and strikes. The aspirations of the nationalists at the beginning were mainly aimed at obtaining a Franco-Tunisian government, with its own Constitution.

Then came the Second World War; North Africa was occupied by the Germans who, in order to definitively detach Tunisia from France, gave great freedom of action to the Neo Destur who, therefore, continued his liberation struggle. But when the territory was reconquered by the Allies, the New Desturian hopes were extinguished and the chief Burghiba had to repair in Cairo.

But in the meantime the party of Destur, despite having been prohibited, continued to gather proselytes, including many intellectuals, among the interest of the whole population.

Among the most serious problems that Tunisia had to face after the war, the priority was certainly the economic one since, although it could not count on great resources, during the war period it had been the most targeted region of North Africa. And with the economic problems there were the social ones: unemployment, low wages, exploitation of the indigenous workforce, shortage of electricity, population growth not followed by an increase in agricultural productivity, nor by industrial development.

These were the main reasons why Tunisia still had to remain within the French Union. The solution to Tunisian problems was entrusted to the United Nations in August 1946, but without success, as was also the hope placed in support from the United States. The situation of the Italians in Tunisia, both during and after the war, was also very precarious. At the fall of Tunis 1600 Italian heads of family were interned and forced to sell their land properties on unfavorable terms. Later they were expelled and France, having returned to good relations with Tunisia, asked Italy, in return, to renounce all the agreements already stipulated with the 1896 Convention.

The problem of Tunisian independence found its way into the summer of 1955 when Mendes France, having the courage to take note of the irresistible will of that people, began negotiations culminating in the declaration of 20 March 1956 with which the protectorate was ended. In July 1957 Tunisia officially decreed the state of the bey, proclaimed the Republic and with a popular plebiscite was appointed first president of Burghiba.

He immediately revealed himself to be an intelligent and balanced man and expressed a sincere desire for collaboration with France and with the whole western world. In June 1958 he obtained total eviction of French troops, minus the base of Bizerte, granted to NATO via France. But precisely because of Bizerte, in the long run, relations with France deteriorated so much that Burghiba, on July 17, 1961, in a speech to the National Assembly, declared that in a short time he would accelerate the process of decolonization of Tunisia with the definitive recovery of Bizerte and the definition of the border to the south of the country. The next day the Tunisian troops attacked the French troops, barricaded in the base, but were rejected after three days and the French occupied the whole city. On September 29th, thanks to mediation by the United States, an agreement was reached with which the French were ordered to leave Bizerte and return to the air base. And while Tunisia always maintained good relations with the other Arab countries of the west, Morocco and Libya, with Egypt instead had various disagreements as Burghiba was accused of defecting the Arab cause.

In June 1962 the base of Bizerte was returned to Tunisia and for some time things went quite well. But then disagreements returned when in May 1963, after a resolution to return part of the Tunisian lands still in the hands of the French, the National Assembly instead established the expropriation of all foreign possessions. The Assembly thus intended to introduce in the agricultural field that system which was called “Tunisian socialism”, changed the name of the single party which became the “Desturian Socialist Party” and established a state socialism, however prudent, so as not to discourage the private enterprise..

Burghiba continued to apply a moderate policy and this stimulated foreign investments, particularly western ones, and contacts with the East were also possible, so much so that in 1964 diplomatic relations were established with popular China.

This attitude, however, created many disagreements with the other Arab countries, especially with Egypt, following the Arab League’s decision to break relations with the Federal Republic of Germany; decision not shared. Relations with Egypt then eased at the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The following year, however, he had a severe controversy with Syria and some friction with Algeria over mutual accusations of interference with internal affairs. But in principle Tunisia always expressed its solidarity with all Arab countries.

Inside, things did not go as desired and the agricultural collectivization experiments all failed, so in September 1969 the Minister of Finance and Planning, Ahmad Ben Salah, was ousted, but passed to the Ministry of Education. From here he was also ousted in November of the same year, tried and sentenced to forced labor (in February 1973 he managed to escape and take refuge in Europe).

In the meantime, another problem arose, that of the succession of Burghiba, seriously ill, and after several discussions ended up recognizing a valid project presented by Burghiba himself, namely that of being able to elect his successor himself. In 1974 the National Assembly, making an amendment to the Constitution, allowed the appointment as President for Life in Burghiba.

From 1976 to 1978 there were worsening relations with Libya and Algeria and there was a general strike in the country, called by the “Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisiens”, with great unrest, in January 1978, to stem which was proclaimed the state of siege and several trials were unpunished for the unionists who had decreed it. In June 1978, Burghiba’s opponents founded a political party called the “Democratic Socialist Movement”. In 1980 Muhamad Al-Mzali was elected prime minister who immediately decided on an opening policy allowing for multi-partyism. The Tunisian Communist Party was officially recognized and analogous what was promised for those parties which in the subsequent elections had exceeded 5% of the vote. In the November 1981 elections, the National Front, a coalition of the Socialist party from the Depression with the General Union of Tunisian Workers, had an overwhelming victory. Instead, the “Movement of Socialist Democrats” and the “Movement of Popular Unity”, which were officially recognized only in 1983, did not reach 5%.

In 1984 popular uprisings started again due to a strong economic crisis. In order to stem the ever growing popular discontent, reshuffles were made in the government which they saw in April 1986 elected to Prime Minister Rasid Sfar and Minister of the Interior Zayn al-Abidin Ben Ali.

But Burghiba’s main opponents were the proselytes of the “Islamic Tendency Movement”. This caused a long period of difficult relations with Iran held responsible for all the excesses caused by that movement.

In 1987 there was a change of the guard in the upper government spheres as Burghiba deposed Prime Minister Sfar and replaced him with Ben Ali who, after an incurable friction with the old president, decreed his deposition.

In 1989, as soon as he was elected president, Ben Ali immediately began extensive reform work. First he abolished the life election of the President of the Republic and increased his office to 5 years; in the name of tolerance he promoted amnesties and openings towards opponents by freeing 5000 people, imprisoned by the past regime, to whom he returned all their rights. At the end of that same year he rejected the request to formalize the Islamic Tendency Movement and this provoked a violent protest especially in the universities, true hideouts of Islamic fundamentalists.

In foreign policy, Ben Ali maintained good relations both with the West and with the Arab states, with whom he began a close collaboration, especially with Libya.

On the occasion of the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 he condemned Iraq but also deplored the intervention of the multinational force led by the United States. Then it also approved the UN resolution to impose the economic embargo on Iraq. All this provoked unrest in the country by the Muslims and even more the following year at the time of the Gulf War.

Then he announced some changes to the electoral law in order to guarantee a wider representation to all the minor parties and, in March 1994, the political elections that took place together with the presidential ones, saw Ben Ali reconfirmed in the office of President of the Republic.


In order to give a highly personalized imprint to the regime, he constantly stained himself with violation of human rights. His police oppressed the defenseless population with his political controls, arresting and persecuting progressive intellectuals and activists. Many international humanitarian organizations, including Amnesty, denounced this state of affairs in Tunisia between 1995 and 1997.

After the Gulf War ended, Ben Ali, after obtaining various positive results in the economic and social field, devoted himself to diplomacy and wanted to increase his relations with the European Union. Then, when the process of d├ętente began in the Middle East, and the headquarters of the Organization for the Liberation of Palestine moved from Tunis to Gaza, Ben Ali could also begin the normalization of relations with the state of Israel.

By the end of 1999 new presidential elections were called and Ben Ali was president for the third time and the legislatures were the prerogative of his party which obtained an amazing majority.