In ancient times Tunisia was known as Carthage, in 146 BC it became part of the Roman Empire until its fall to the Vandals in 439 AD and later the Byzantines. In 640 the first Arab invasion brought Islam and the Arabic language to the region. A local dynasty, the Hafsid, established its rule over Tunisia in 1230, and remained in power for over three centuries, until the Ottomans nominally included Tunisia in their empire in 1574. Under Ottoman suzerainty, Tunisia’s local ruler, the Bey of Tunis, enjoyed a large degree of autonomy.

In 1881, the French invaded and established a protectorate over the country. The nation obtained independence from France in 1956. Habib Bourguiba, who led the fight for Tunisia’s independence, is considered the ‘founding father’ of the Tunisian republic, which he instituted in 1957, replacing the previous monarchy. Bourguiba, considered a benevolent autocrat, remained president for thirty years, instituting many modernizing reforms.

Notable among these is the Code of Personal Status, which abolished polygamy, required individual consent for marriage, and ended unilateral male divorce (talaq). Other reforms included secularization of the court system, and dismantling of the religious Zitouna University, which some perceived as opposite to Bourguiba’s modernist vision for Tunisia.[1] Bourguiba invested heavily in education, and instituted universal public education, and a state-run health care system.

In 1987 Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali led a “medical” coup d’état and took over the presidency, ousting the ailing Bourguiba. After initial indications of democratic openings, Ben Ali failed to institute a democratic system, and resorted to oppressive practices.  He suppressed free speech and jailed many members of Tunisia’s Islamist parties, as well as human rights and political activists from secular parties. However, under Ben Ali, Tunisia’s economy prospered, making it one of the most successful nations in Africa.[3] In an effort to prevent radicalization, Ben Ali instituted programs that successfully cut the poverty rate from 7.4% in 1990 to 3.8% in 2005.[4]

Most recently, Tunisia has garnered fame across the region for inspiring the Arab Spring with its own Jasmine Revolution in January, 2011. The movement began in response to the self immolation of a street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, on December 17th. It continued when Tunisians took to the streets, protesting the lack of civil and political freedoms, economic hardship, and high unemployment, especially among young educated people.

Following weeks of peaceful protests, President Ben Ali, after trying to brutally repress the movement, left Tunisia on January 14th to live in exile in Saudi Arabia. The people instituted a new transitional government with plans to elect a constituent assembly on October 23, 2011, whose main task will be to rewrite the constitution, and prepare parliamentary and presidential elections. The events inspired protestors in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, and Morocco.

The government originally scheduled constituent elections for July but later postponed them until October in order to give new political parties a better chance to organize and garner support. Currently the leading parties in the campaign include Al-Nahda, a moderate Islamist party, and the Progressive Democratic Party, Al-Nahda’s main rival.[5] Several large protests have challenged the interim government since the revolution, and incidents of suppression were a sign that full freedoms were not yet in place in this fledgling democracy. [6] However, in recent weeks the situation has stabilized, and economic activities have significantly resumed.

Colleen McCullough

Summer 2011 Maghreb Center Intern

[1] Michael Dunn, “The Al-Nahda Movement in Tunisia: From Renaissance to Revolution.” Printed in Islamism and Secularism in North Africa, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown: 1994. Pp. 92-3.

[2] Botha, Anneli. “Terrorism in the Maghreb.” Institute for Security Studies. 2008. http://www.iss.org.za/pgcontent.php?UID=19718.

[3] “The African Challengers: Global Competitors Emerge from the Overlooked Continent.” The Boston Consulting Group. 2010. http://www.bcg.com/documents/file44610.pdf.

[4] Botha, “Terrorism in the Maghreb.” 2008.

[5] “Tunisians Undecided Ahead of October Vote.” Al Jazeera. 6 July 2011. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/07/20117617715460755.html

[6] Chrisafis, Angelique. “Tunisians Still Wait to celebrate democracy after the revolution.” The Guardian. 17 June 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/17/tunisians-wait-celebrate-democracy-revolution.

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